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Eighth District race attracts third highest outside spending in the nation

Political handicappers suggest the state has three close congressional races this year. But only the contest between Stewart Mills and Rick Nolan has attracted serious outside cash.

What all this outside spending means for you, if you live in a media market that includes the 8th District (which includes Twin Cities stations), is that it seems impossible to make it through primetime TV these days without seeing some ad concerning the Mills-Nolan race.
MinnPost illustration by Corey Anderson

The rematch in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District between Republican Stewart Mills and Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan has attracted the third most reported outside spending — dollars spent by outside groups, not the campaigns themselves — of any Congressional race in the United States.

The amount is $2.6 million, which as of Thursday puts it behind only Nevada’s 3rd District, south of Las Vegas, and Kansas’ 1st, which covers the west and central parts of the state. That’s all according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks money in politics.

Reported outside spending in Minnesota Congressional Districts
Nearly four times as much reported outside money has poured into Minnesota's 8th Congressional District race as District 3. Less than $1,000 reported outside spending has occurred in the districts 1, 2, 5 and 7 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Source: Center for Responsive Politics

The spending by outside groups in the 8th District race dwarfs what has been spent in Minnesota’s two other competitive races — the 2nd and 3rd districts — even though all three are listed as similarly competitive by the Cook Political report. CD8, rated D+1, meaning Democrats have a small advantage at the presidential level, falls into the “Lean Democratic” category when it comes to this Congressional race.

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In Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District race, where Republican incumbent Erik Paulsen faces a challenge from DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff, outside groups have spent about $677,000. CD3 is listed as “Lean Republican,” with a score of R+2. The 2nd District, where Democrat Angie Craig will face off against Republican radio talk show host Jason Lewis, has attracted too little outside spending to show up on the Center’s list. That district is rated as R+2, meaning Republicans have the slight advantage at the presidential level. In August, Cook updated the Congressional race’s rating from toss-up to “Lean Democratic.”

By the ratings, Minnesota has three competitive congressional races this year. Why is so much more money going into Minnesota’s 8th District?

Fighting for seats

While the 2010 Citizens United decision did significantly increase the resources at the disposal of groups hoping to influence campaigns, those resources are still finite. Consequently, outside spending tends to concentrate on the races those groups consider to present the best chance of a pick-up for their favored party.

At the U.S. Capitol, Republicans control the House, with 246 seats, while Democrats hold 186. Just 37 out of the 435 seats up for election this November are listed as competitive by Cook, giving the parties not a whole lot of turf to fight over in their quest to either hold (Republicans) or attempt to capture (Democrats) the U.S. House.

The Eighth District, which stretches from Chisago and Isanti counties, just north of the Twin Cities metro area, up to Koochiching County on the Canadian border, and across to the furthest eastern tip of Cook County, has been considered competitive since longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, lost his seat to Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010. Cravaack then lost to Nolan in 2012. Nolan managed to hold on to the seat in 2014 when he faced Stewart Mills for the first time, but the election was close: Nolan won by less than two percentage points.

The district has also attracted big money before: In 2014, it attracted the second most outside spending of any Congressional District, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2012, it was third.

All that attention has likely fallen on the 8th District because it’s pretty much a swing district, said Eric Ostermeier, a Humphrey School of Public Affairs research associate and author of Smart Politics, a nonpartisan political news site. In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama won the 8th District with a five percentage point lead, yet Cravaack was able to unseat Oberstar in 2010, and some of the state legislative seats in the district are held by Republicans.

With those voters in charge of the outcome, many think the Nolan-Mills race could go either way. Among them are outside spending groups, as evidenced by the money they’re pouring into the race.

“Outside money can only help so much, and I think these groups, they basically don't want to spend good money on what they perceive as weak or losing candidates,” Ostermeier said.

Reliable candidates

The candidates themselves may have something to do with the races’ varying ability to attract outside spending, too. Mills has proven himself to be a strong fundraiser, Ostermeier said — his campaign contributions amount to about half of Nolan’s in the last available report in July, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Ostermeier called Mills’ fundraising “Very strong for a challenger. I think Mills is burning through the money a lot more than Nolan, but it's still a sign of a strong candidacy.”

Compare that to the 3rd district, where Paulsen’s campaign contributions are more than four times greater than Bonoff’s, and the 2nd District, where Craig’s outnumber Lewis’ more than four to one.

Campaign contributions
According to the Federal Election Commission, as of the last report filed mid-July, Congressional District 8 challenger Stewart Mills had raised about 53 cents in contributions for every dollar incumbent Rick Nolan had raised. In CD3, Erik Paulsen outraised opponent Terri Bonoff by more than four times, and in CD2, Angie Craig outraised Jason Lewis by more than four to one.
Source: Federal Election Commission

Craig, Lewis and Mills are all political outsiders who have never held elected office, though Mills, of course, has run before. But Craig has shown her ability to raise money, while Lewis — who has name recognition as a longtime conservative talk show host — may not be seen by some Republicans and consequently, outside groups, as someone who will toe the party line. Mills, on the other hand, started with name recognition from his association with Mills Fleet Farm (Fleet Farm was sold by the family earlier this year), and may have attracted more voters’ awareness from his previous run in 2014.

“When new candidates run for the House of Representatives, it sometimes takes two or three times to build that name recognition … this could really be the time that the public considers that candidate viable,” said Diana Dwyre, a political science professor at California State University-Chico, who studies campaign finance.

It’s a long campaign

Another factor that could be at play here is that the 8th District race started earlier than the other competitive races in Minnesota, said Kyle Kondik, the editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a publication of the University of Virginia Center for Politics that analyzes campaigns and elections. Sabato predicts the three competitive Minnesota races leaning  the same way Cook does.

Mills announced he would possibly run against Nolan again a full year ago, according to the Brainerd Dispatch.

In the Second District, Lewis didn’t win his primary until August, and Bonoff didn’t announce her intent to run in the 3rd until April.

“[CD2] took a little bit longer to get started and [CD3] is something of a reach for Democrats,” Kondik said. That said, he added, there’s still time for spending to pour into other Minnesota races.

“I would suspect that if [CD2] has not seen a lot of spending, it will soon,” he said.

Money means ads

What all this outside spending means for you, if you live in a media market that includes the 8th District (which includes Twin Cities stations), is that it seems impossible to make it through primetime TV these days without seeing some ad concerning the Mills-Nolan race.

Some of these ads are paid for by the campaigns themselves; others are paid for by outside spending groups.

One ad, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, accuses Nolan of “getting cozy” with the United States’ enemies, focusing on Nolan’s support of the Iran nuclear deal. Another, paid for by the House Majority PAC, calls Stewart Mills, heir to the Fleet Farm empire, out of touch, criticizing him as being against a minimum wage increase and for tax breaks for the rich.

The biggest outside spenders in the 8th District race are the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic candidates. Those big-spending groups have been considerably less active or not active at all in the other competitive Minnesota races.

Despite their relatively similar rankings, as election day draws nearer, the 8th District is probably just more competitive than other Minnesota races, Dwyre said.

At the beginning of races, parties — and the outside money groups that follow their lead — may throw money into, say, 150 races they think are competitive. But closer to Election Day, that list tends to narrow, she said.

“At one point, they might have all been possibly competitive, but these things narrow significantly,” she said.