That television ad praising Minnesota Democrats for their work on paid family leave and affordable child care? It was paid for by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. And those fliers touting the business credentials of Republican legislative candidates? They were bought and paid for by the Northstar Leadership Fund.
Most Minnesotans probably haven’t heard of these entities — they are outside spending groups, also known as political action committees, or PACs — and they’re raising big money to influence voters this fall.
So far, in fact, a trio of Democratic-aligned political action committees have already raised and spent more than $1 million on the 2016 election. On the right, meanwhile, big business groups are amassing millions to back Republican candidates. And that total only accounts for spending up to the most recent mid-July campaign finance deadline. In past elections, outside groups have spent up to $20 million total on state races, vastly outpacing candidates and Minnesota's political parties themselves.
With no statewide race on the ballot in Minnesota this fall, those groups are focusing their fire on the battle for all 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature.
The passing of Labor Day weekend serves as the unofficial kickoff for campaign spending season, with almost 90 percent of the television, radio ads and mailers going out in the final two months of the election. Here’s a breakdown on who’s behind these groups, how much they’re raising — and how they could play a role in the 2016 election.
What are PACs and how long have they been around?
Organizations that raise money to influence elections, usually from labor unions or big businesses, have been have been around in one form or another for decades, but with strict limits on how much they could spend. The landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission changed all that, opening those groups and wealthy individual donors up to spend unlimited amounts of cash to influence campaigns. The ruling led to a rush to form all-new political action committees, also known as super PACs.
How much money are we talking about here?
Kind of a lot! Here are the totals raised and the amount of cash on hand reported by some of the top spending groups to Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Note that these totals are just for the period from the first of the year through July 18 — by now, the numbers are likely higher. The next report, which will include information through late September, is due on Sept. 27. (Groups can carry balances over from the previous year, so some groups may have more cash on hand than they raised this year.)
What are the major Democratic outside spending groups in Minnesota?
For years, Democratic campaigns have been backed by labor unions and wealthy left-leaning donors. That hasn’t changed, exactly, but many unions have set up new political action committees in the wake of Citizens United. For instance, the PAC for Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers union, already raised $983,816 by the last campaign finance deadline and spent $840,626. Much of that was spent on phone banking and campaigning for Hillary Clinton, but the union also donates to state candidates.
But the major spender on the left is Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), which has been supporting DFL legislative and state candidates since the 2010 election. ABM has already raised $1,620,010 and spent $1,395,930. That money was all raised from two other political action committees — Win Minnesota and the 2016 Fund — which collect dollars from unions and other wealthy donors and unions and funnel all that money to ABM.
Isn’t it illegal for groups to coordinate like that?
Not in Minnesota. Under state law, super PACs are prohibited from coordinating directly with other candidates or political parties, but not with other outside groups. It’s a coordinating scheme that’s worked well for Democrats over the years, with ABM focusing on spending and campaign strategy while the other groups put all their efforts into fundraising. Having a coordinated effort also prevents spending overlap and wasted resources in certain races and legislative districts, and it presents unified and consistent messaging DFL for candidates across the state.
And what about Republican spending groups?
Minnesota Republican groups have struggled to coordinate with each other in the past, but that doesn’t mean they’re not raising major money to back their candidates. A new political action committee, the Northstar Leadership Fund, was registered after the 2014 election and started this year with more than $996,000 in the bank. Since then, the group has raised $500,000 and is sitting on $1,495,272 as of the last reporting deadline. The chair of the political committee is Charlie Weaver, who leads the Minnesota Business Partnership, a coalition of top executives from Minnesota's largest companies.
Pro Jobs Majority is another business-backed group, with most of its money coming in from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and its members. The group has raised about $562,000 and, with some cash rolled over from the previously year, had $600,000 in the bank.
The Freedom Club of Minnesota, which has spent major dollars on past Minnesota elections, raised about $171,000 and has spent $136,000, and currently has nearly $150,000 in the bank. The group, founded by elusive donor Bob Cummins, has historically backed more socially conservative candidates and causes.
Two other active Republican political action committees — the MN Action Network and MN Jobs Coalition — had less in the bank than other groups as of the last reporting deadline, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have time to be major players in this election season.
Do political action committees only align with political parties?
Not every major outside spending group in the state is focused on simply electing one party over the other. Many are formed to support specific issues and the candidates that align with their beliefs, no matter which party they’re from.
For example, the Beer PAC, started by the beer wholesalers, was set up to support candidates who oppose lifting Minnesota’s prohibition-era ban on Sunday liquor sales. The group has already spent $27,000, most of that going to Senate Democrats, who didn’t take a vote on Sunday liquor sales during the 2016 session.
The Housing First Fund, a political fund registered by members of the Builder’s Association of the Twin Cities, had $120,962 in the bank as of the last deadline, with a focus solely on supporting pro-homebuilding industry candidates. Specifically, the builder’s association fought a perennial push in the Legislature to require indoor sprinkler systems in new homes of a certain size, a regulation they say is too costly and onerous.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Legislative Fund was sitting with $146,271 in the bank as of the last reporting deadline. Law enforcement has had a number of issues crop up in St. Paul over the years, including the years-long fight over police body camera policies.
Is this what people refer to as “dark money” in politics?
Yes and no. Thanks to disclosure laws passed in Minnesota after Citizens United, many of these groups must disclose how much they raise — and from who — and how they spend their money. But some groups have figured out ways to get around disclosing everything. In particular, political nonprofits can skirt disclosure laws if they avoid words like “vote for” or “vote against” a certain elected official. If these groups simply point out an official’s stance, they don’t have to report to the state’s campaign finance board.
Over the years legislators have tried to change this, with bills aiming to require donors who give more than $5,000 for ads, mailers or voter guides to report. Legislators also tried to lump all “electioneering communication” 30 days before the August primary and 60 days before the general election into the disclosure law, but interest groups have blocked such changes so far.