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Will the coming flood of independent political money drown Minnesota’s DFL and Republican parties?

The DFL’s Ken Martin says parties must learn to operate in new political environment. GOP’s Tony Sutton, though, thinks the new rules could alter traditional party structures.

In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act, which was supposed to limit the money poured into political campaigns, was passed by the Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

But best intentions have gone far, far awry.

Following a 2010 Supreme Court decision — the controversial Citizens United case — more money than ever is pouring into politics with less transparency than ever before.

Among the big questions it raised:

• Will the vast sums of money spent by a variety of independent expenditure groups under the new rules bankrupt political parties as we’ve known them?

• And rather than making contributions to parties, will individuals make their donations directly to organizations that support their favorite causes?

Sutton and Martin try different tacks
Tony Sutton, state chairman of the Republican Party, and Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, take slightly different views on the futures of their parties.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

Start with this: Both Sutton and Martin head parties that currently are in debt, which is not unusual in off-election years. Both also say their parties will be in “OK” financial shape when 2012 campaigning gets serious.

Martin, who a year ago headed one of those independent expenditure groups, says it will be the job of the parties to learn to thrive in the new environment.

Sutton, however, has deep concerns about the long-range future of the party structure.

“It’s a horrible development in politics,” said Sutton of the new political playing field.

While parties are governed by large groups of activists, he said, the independent expenditure organizations may be made up of very small groups of very large donors “representing very narrow interests.”

“Tony Sutton and Ken Martin answer to thousands and thousands of activists,” Sutton said.

Additionally, he points out, the parties are governed by strict rules administered by the Federal Elections Commission. (The state’s GOP recently was fined $170,000 by the FEC for a series of violations between 2006 and 2008.)

To date, most efforts to regulate independent organizations have been muted by court rulings.

The one benefit that the parties enjoy at the moment, Sutton said, is large, grass-roots organizations.

“We can turn out a crowd,” Sutton said. “That’s something that Alliance for a Better Minnesota [the union-funded group previously headed by Martin] can’t do.”

Sutton sees groups expanding to grass-roots organizing
But even that will change, Sutton predicted.

“It’s only a matter of time before they develop grass-roots organizing,” Sutton said. “They’ll start growing field offices.”

The impact will be huge. Sutton pointed to the recall elections recently held in Wisconsin. More than $30 million was spent — mostly by outside organizations — on a handful of races that once would have been run on a few hundred thousand dollars.

“I was in Marshall [in southwest Minnesota] during those campaigns,” Sutton said. “Because of all the television ads [on Twin Cities stations] people were all talking about the race between Sheila Harsdorf and Shelly Moore.”

Those ads, Sutton said, weren’t being paid for by the campaigns or by the parties. Rather, they were being paid by outside interests.

In the future, he’s concerned that contributors will find it “sexier” to write checks to organizations that create television ads than political parties, which use most funds to build political infrastructure.

“Over time,” Sutton said, “I fear they [the independent groups] will overtake the parties. I know there are people who say, ‘Oh, the parties are controlled by nothing but insiders.’ But that’s just not reality. The parties are controlled by hundreds of thousands of activists. It’s these organizations that are truly controlled by insiders.”

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

Martin isn’t as fearful of the potential money-sucking power of the outsiders as is Sutton. It could be because just a year ago he headed the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the organization that receives so much credit (or blame) for pushing Mark Dayton over the top and into the governor’s office.

Parties’ new competition?
“The parties may be inclined to deal with these organizations as competitors,” Martin said.

In some respects they are.

The lifeblood of politics, political parties and independent expenditure groups is money.

“There now are more organizations asking for money,” Martin said. “We [the parties] just have to realize that’s part of the landscape.”

Although it’s not legal for parties to work in partnership with the outsiders, Martin said the key will be for those of similar interests to understand “we’re all on the same page.”

The single thing that hasn’t changed for political parties, Martin said, is that they must prove their worth.

“If you can’t elect candidates,” Martin said, “you will not get support.”

In the coming year, the competition for dollars will be especially fierce in Minnesota. The presidential race, a Senate race and the marriage amendment will attract record millions of dollars.

But both Sutton and Martin are convinced there’ll be enough left over for the parties to do their more mundane business of creating voter lists for candidates, supplying sample ballots, providing volunteers.

Republicans are motivated, Sutton said.

“Obama is the best fundraiser we have,” he said.

Martin laughed at that.

“The president is our best fundraiser, too,” he said. “And we have Michele Bachmann.”

Party spending overwhelmed?
But the amount spent by the parties will be a pittance, compared with the money surrounding the huge campaigns.

As confident as he is about the coming campaign and the relevance of the parties, Sutton constantly echoes concerns about the future.

“The parties are still the cleanest outlet for politics,” he said. “I fear money will trump all of this.”

He speaks with disdain about one of his own, Republican John McCain, and his partnership with Russ Feingold in trying to clean up the mess.

“I never was one of his fans,” said Sutton of McCain.

The GOP chairman believes McCain worked so hard to limit the amount of money that the political parties could collect “because he was always an outsider.”

McCain and Feingold, of course, could not see the future. Even before their bill reached the House, it was diluted by the Senate. Then, it was shredded by the Supreme Court.

And in the end?

“McCain and Feingold got the opposite of what they wanted” said Sutton.

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