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Independent groups spending record sums to win control of Legislature

The massive financial commitments by political parties and independent groups rival those usually associated with a major statewide race, such as governor.

Alliance for a Better Minnesota is airing an advertisement attacking the GOP Legislature.

battle for control series logoIt’s a high-stakes poker game to determine who will control the 2013 Minnesota Legislature, and independent groups that want to influence your vote are going all in.

When the last pre-election finance reports are filed next week, they will be record-breaking.

Not only are the political parties and independent groups spending more than ever to influence legislative races but they also are spending at levels usually associated with a major statewide race, such as governor.

Republican-leaning groups will have spent more on legislative races than they did in 2010 on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Groups supporting DFL legislative candidates, it appears, will spend almost as much as they spent to support Gov. Mark Dayton’s candidacy.

The groups fall into two general categories.

The first is a clearly identified party unit (such as the DFL Party, the Republican Party of Minnesota, and the DFL and Republican House and Senate caucuses.)

Partisan groups’ spending unlimited

The second category consists of outside, independent groups that carry no party label but are partisan by their very nature. The independent expenditures are funded by unlimited contributions from individuals or corporations.

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The biggest independent player in the legislative races is the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. By the time the last check is cashed, ABM will have spent more than $1.5 million.

Much of it will go for mail and broadcast ads aimed at many of the 28 competitive races that MinnPost has identified as key in determining which party will control the House and Senate. (You can check our interactive guide to the races here.)

The DFL Party and the DFL House and Senate caucuses will each match that spending level, legally coordinating with ABM for maximum effectivenessAlthough independent expenditure and party units can and do work together, they cannot talk to or coordinate efforts with candidates.

A best-guess estimate is that, altogether, the DFL will spend almost $5 million on legislative races by supporting the party’s nominees and attacking their opponents.

According to DFL Party officials, the spending caps on House and Senate races represent only a small part of the expenditures in targeted districts.

Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, said that those caps — “about $38,000’’ for a House race and “about $60,000” for a Senate race — represent only the amount the individual candidates can spend. In targeted races, he said, the DFL alone will spend as much as $150,000 to $200,000.

job crusher ad
A mailer from the Republican Party attacks DFL
Sen. Jim Carlson.

On the GOP side, three independent groups have raised and spent the most:

• The Pro Jobs Majority, the independent expenditure arm of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Minnesota’s Future, which was formed in 2010 to promote the candidacy of Tom Emmer.  Contributions come mainly in the five-figure amount from Minnesota businesses.

The Freedom Club, which describes itself as a “group of like minded conservative individuals dedicated to preserving economic prosperity and Americas future.”

Minnesota’s Future, alone, will report more than $1 million in contributions. 

Along with Republican legislative caucuses and the Republican Party, spending on behalf of Republican candidates will approach $4 million. The party itself, which has had well-publicized financial problems, has limited resources for candidate support. Often, a mailing or ad claiming Republican Party sponsorship is paid by caucus money flowing, legally, through the party structure.

Candidates not always pleased with ‘help’

Even though candidates can’t coordinate efforts with outside groups, that doesn’t mean the candidates aren’t aware of what they’re doing. Nor are they necessarily pleased with them.

Rep. John Persell

“I’ve made it clear I, don’t want anybody doing that stuff,” said DFL Rep. John Persell in House District 5A in the Bemidji area, where two current legislators are battling.

He was referring to a piece of mail featuring a distorted photo of his GOP opponent, Rep. Larry Howes. “I got that piece of mail. It was from the DFL, and I immediately put in a call to Ken Martin and said, ‘I don’t want that stuff up here.’ The words were OK, but the distorted photo was ridiculous. That sort of stuff may work in the cities, but I don’t think it works up here.”

Howes says he and Persell have avoided negative claims in their own ads but that the outside ads are in the classic negative genre.

“They [the DFL] had one against me really stretching the facts with a real distorted picture of me,” Howes said. “Not only was the picture that grainy black-and-white, but I had sort of a shrunken head. I looked at that and said, ‘Geez, I wouldn’t vote for a guy who looks like that.’ ”

Rep. Larry Howes

Howes estimates that more money, mainly from outside sources, will be spent this time by both sides than in any of his previous seven, upward of $175,000. 

That is not surprising. While redistricting gives the District 5 a DFL lean, the Senate and both House races are pitting incumbent against incumbent, meaning both parties will fight to the finish.

It’s a similar story in Senate District 28, where DFL newcomer Jack Krage is facing first-term incumbent Jeremy Miller. The Republican Party sent out a mailer tying Krage to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. The pamphlet reads, “Jack Krage: A rubber stamp for special interests groups with an extreme agenda.”  

 Miller said somebody had showed him the mailing after it went out. “Of course, I have no idea,” he said. “We’re trying to run a positive campaign, and my opponent from the beginning has decided to go negative.”

If the medium sends a message about the importance of these races, the number of television ads for legislative contests is significant.  The Alliance for a Better Minnesota spent almost $700,000 on TV ads with an anti-Republican message. Republicans are using TV, too.   

In 14B in St. Cloud, Zach Dorholt, the DFLer running against incumbent Republican Rep. King Banaian, said he was “surprised” to see TV ads going up against him.

“It’s the classic creepy photo of me, very grainy,” he said. “It says I’m a life-long political operative and that I fell asleep during economic classes.” He didn’t fall asleep, he says.  Furthermore, “I don’t think it matters.  If anything, it might help my name recognition.”

Negative ads common because they work

But negative ads do matter, and often they do work.

It’s “because these candidates have actual records.  No matter what the skepticism, we are accurate,” said Chris Tiedeman, a director of the Minnesota’s Future campaign.  “These are negative pieces based on a real record.”

He points to a flier sent to voters in House District 53A in Woodbury, opposing DFL candidate JoAnn Ward. It says: “JoAnn Ward’s political allies created a bad business climate in Minnesota. … Then her family business packed up for a better tax climate. They moved the business and the jobs to Wisconsin.”

The Minnesota’s Future-funded ad attacking JoAnn Ward, candidate for Minnesota House district 53A.

The mailing, says Tiedeman, is effective and truthful. “It defines what this campaign statewide is all about — jobs and the jobs climate,” he said. “The tax and regulatory climate is a reflection of bad policy. And the fact that another state attracted this business away from ours is telling.”

Ward’s website has responded to the ad in kind. Referring to Republican “special interests,” she claims it was bad policy created by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty that hindered her small business and that his own economic development advisers told her to seek out re-locating to Wisconsin.

The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board lists 31 independent expenditure committees, in addition to political committees and political party units, the result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years ago that gave business and unions the go-ahead to create vehicles for unlimited spending and contributions. 

Large and small, clumsy or slick, these groups are eager to jump into the electoral process. They defend their output as the personification of free speech.

And despite voter and candidate fatigue, with their spending, they are saying: The more speech, the better.