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Shutdown battle moves to billboards and radio ads to pressure both sides, but are they counterproductive?

One of the targeted legislators — Rep. Rich Murray, a Republican from Albert Lea with an independent streak — believes the radio spots “backfire” in all sorts of ways.

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota has unleashed another flurry of radio ads aimed at supporting Gov. Mark Dayton’s position in the great budget debate.

The ads, costing about $50,000 to produce and run, are targeted in the districts of nine Republican state legislators, most of whom were involved in squeaker races in the last election. Not surprisingly, the ads pin the blame for the shutdown on Republicans.

One of those targets, Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, believes the radio spots “backfire” in all sorts of ways. More on that later.

Meantime, the Minnesota Majority, a conservative organization, has countered with a handful of billboards. The billboards have slightly different messages, with the same conclusion: This shutdown is Dayton’s fault.

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For example, there’s a billboard heading south on I-35 that reads: “Next Rest Area 138 miles, exit 214 Iowa. Thanks a lot Gov. Dayton.”

Minnesota Majority

So far, advocacy campaigns relatively modest
To date at least, these relatively modest campaigns represent the most obvious efforts by groups outside the direct political process to influence the hearts and minds of Minnesotans.

Some in the national media are holding up Minnesota as a microcosm of the national budget debate. The New York Times, for example, recently ended a budget-based editorial with these chilling words: “In Minnesota, there is now a chance to draw a line and say, ‘no further.’ ”

But so far, the concerns expressed by such Minnesota political heavyweights as former Gov. Arne Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale — that national organizations might start flooding the airways with rhetoric — are not coming to pass.

The closest thing to national money to date seems to be coming in an indirect fashion. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota receives most of its financial support from unions. The public employee unions in the state have contributed the bulk of the money used to fund ad campaigns since the close of the legislative session on May 23. Some of that union money is coming from national union coffers, according to Denise Cardinal, who heads the Alliance.

But it’s likely far less than the “millions of dollars” that Jeff Davis, who heads Minnesota Majority, said in a news release that he believes the “other side” is spending to promote the Dayton position.

Overall, Cardinal does not expect national organizations to get heavily involved in Minnesota’s woes. Instead, she predicts that the national budget debate will be fought out in each state.

“It seems to me that most organizations understand that the battlegrounds are in each of the states,” Cardinal said. “There’s an understanding that the more local you are, the more impact you can have.”

No matter which side you support, getting the message out NOW is critical, Cardinal believes.

Despite the fact that those who follow politics closely understand that this debate goes back to November’s elections, thousands — maybe most — Minnesotans are getting their first taste of the issues that have led to the shutdown, according to Cardinal.

“A lot of regular Minnesotans are paying attention for the first time,” she said. “They’re asking themselves, ‘Why is my state park closed? Why can’t I get this service? Whose fault is it?’ ”

In the Albert Lea area, for example, Alliance for a Better Minnesota radio spots point the finger at Murray, a first-term legislator.

In some respects, he’s an understandable target.

Targeted legislator Murray makes his anti-ads case
Murray won his race by a scant 57 votes. (Laughing, he notes that he was named the president of “the Landslide Committee” in the House Republican caucus. That self-deprecating group includes a handful of first-term legislators who eked out wins in November. Included in that group are such representatives as King Banaian, who won his St. Cloud district by 13 votes; Debra Kiel of Crookston, who won her Crookston district by 131 votes; and Carolyn McElfatrick of Deer River, who won a historically DFL district by 409 votes.)

Rep. Rich Murray

Rep. Rich Murray

In addition to having barely won his race, Murray would seem a logical target because, unlike the vast majority of his caucus, he’s shown a streak of independence. He voted against the Republicans’ first budget bill because he thought it cut too deeply into Local Government Aid in his district. He also was one of three Republicans in the House to vote against the bill to put the marriage amendment on the ballot.

But Murray is contemptuous of the radio ads because he said he is the sort of Republican who can be part of the solution.

“They don’t know me,” said Murray of the organization producing the spots.

Murray assumes Alliance for a Better Minnesota doesn’t know, for example, that he has been in touch with the governor’s office a few times since the shutdown began.

“In the last 30 days, I’ve made it my project to go everywhere in the district and listen to people,” Murray said.

He’s reported what he’s heard to the governor’s office.

For the most part, what he’s NOT hearing are the respective talking points of the two parties.

“What I mostly hear is ‘Get it fixed. Solve it,’ ” Murray said. “People aren’t saying, ‘Balance the budget by raising taxes or by making cuts. They’re saying, ‘Get it done.’ ”

But there’s a second message, too, according to Murray.

“Government’s too big,” he said. “People are telling me, ‘We have to reform it.’ ”

But even in that message, Murray said, there’s a side message. People don’t expect that to be done immediately. They expect that change to be made “over time.”

It’s a point of view that Murray says he shares. He believes the radio spots that are meant to put pressure on him “backfire” because there’s his human reaction. The spots make him angry.

“They back me into a corner,” he said. “They make me work even harder.”

He talked of how a round of targeted spots that came out earlier led to him receiving more than 200 calls at his home. (In the spots, he said, an “800-number” was given to callers. Those who used phoned the 800 number were directed, via a national union organization, to his home number.)

Disgusted as he and family members were by the constancy of the calls, Murray said he’s reached out to as many of the callers as possible explaining that the issues aren’t as simple as the radio ads imply.

Murray says he’d join bipartisan effort for solution
As a rookie legislator, Murray said he understands he doesn’t have great influence. But he also said he’d be willing to work with a bipartisan group of legislators to come up with solution. So far, that group hasn’t emerged.

“We have to find the true meaning of compromise,” he said.

What’s that?

“When both sides get a little of what they want and give up a little of what they want,” he said. “We have to get that done. I’ve had my business [he’s a financial adviser with a 10-person staff] for 20 years. You find a way to get it done.”

Finger-pointing billboards and radio spots, he said, don’t help.

But they’re going to keep coming.

The Alliance will soon be releasing a new series of ads claiming the shutdown is “slamming the brakes” on the economy.

Minnesota Majority, too, is seeking donations to fund more billboards as well as radio and television spots.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.