Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Franken, Klobuchar step up early with 2018 campaign cash for endangered Senate colleagues

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Between January and July of 2017, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Follow the North Star Fund gave $65,000 to 11 Democrats, seven of them from Trump states.

2018 will be a monumentally important midterm election for Democrats: It’s their first chance to put President Donald Trump and the GOP — as well as their own message and brand — to the test at the ballot box.

Democrats believe the president’s historic unpopularity could be a huge boost to their campaign to take back Congress. There’s hopeful talk that they could significantly eat into the GOP’s 23-seat advantage in the House of Representatives — or even claim the chamber altogether.

In the Senate, however — where the GOP holds just a four-seat lead — they couldn’t have been dealt a worse hand. To simply maintain their 48 seats in the Senate, Democrats will have to run the table in a slate of red states where incumbents are up for re-election, including Trump-loving North Dakota and West Virginia.

Even though many Democratic incumbents don’t even have challengers yet, the party has begun gearing up for a fight. Minnesota’s two Democratic senators have already contributed in a big way. Through political action committees that spread campaign cash to allies, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have begun filling their colleagues’ war chests for the intense election season that lay ahead.

A terrible map

If history is a guide, Democrats should be riding high right now. Midterm elections are usually bad for the party in power: 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014 saw the party out of the White House either take a congressional majority or consolidate one.

In 2010, when President Barack Obama’s approval rating hovered in the mid-40s, Democrats lost a whopping 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate in those midterms. Trump’s approval rating is currently in the low to mid-30s.

The unforgiving Senate map is effectively a hard ceiling to the progress Democrats can make toward a majority in the upper chamber. In total, 23 Democrats, along with two independents who caucus with the Democrats, are up for re-election in 2018, while only 8 Republicans are up for re-election.

Of the 25 Democrats defending their seats, 10 are in states that Trump won. Some represent states that the president just narrowly won, such as Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Other Democrats face electorates that went for Trump by enormous margins: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s constituents preferred Trump by over 40 points, and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s did by 36 points.

Incumbent Democrats also face tough races in Missouri, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Montana, which all went for Trump by double-digit margins, or close to them.

While the party is forced to play defense around the country, Democrats have few opportunities to play offense: Most of the seats the GOP is defending are in safely red places like Mississippi, Wyoming, and Nebraska.

Only one Republican incumbent is running in a state won by Hillary Clinton: Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. The Democrats’ next best shot at a pick up is unseating Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, whose state went for Trump by four points and is facing heat from both his left and his right this year. Even if they were to win those two races and retain all their other seats, Democrats would be tied with Republicans, 50-50, with Vice President Mike Pence holding the tiebreaker.

Franken and Klobuchar distribute the dollars

Election Day is more than 16 months away, but the Democrats’ precarious situation is requiring well-positioned senators to step up and help their endangered colleagues. If early campaign finance reports are any indication, Franken and Klobuchar are heeding that call.

In recent years, Franken has emerged as a top fundraiser for Democrats, and he is not up for re-election until 2020, freeing him up to support other Democrats. Klobuchar, a member of Senate leadership and another big-time fundraiser, has her own re-election contest in 2018, though that race is not viewed as a top priority for the GOP.

Like many members of Congress, the two each have their own political action committees, called leadership PACs. Separate from their own re-election committees, these are used to distribute campaign contributions to allies and party committees.

Between January and July of 2017, Franken’s Midwest Values PAC distributed $80,000 to 12 Democratic incumbents, nine of them representing states Trump won. His PAC gave a per-cycle maximum of $10,000 to Manchin, Baldwin, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly.

In that time period, Klobuchar’s Follow the North Star Fund gave $65,000 to 11 Democrats, seven of them from Trump states. Klobuchar gave the maximum $10,000 to two incumbents not expected to face close re-elections, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. She gave $5,000 to Manchin, Brown, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, among others.

Sen. Al Franken
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Between January and July of 2017, Sen. Al Franken’s Midwest Values PAC distributed $80,000 to 12 Democratic incumbents, nine of them representing states Trump won.

Both PACs donated a combined $25,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the party arm that oversees all Senate races and blankets states with negative ads come election season.

Klobuchar and Franken’s contribution activity for the first half of 2017 outpaces their activity at this point in 2015, an election cycle in which neither were up for re-election, and Democrats were confident they could take back the Senate.

Franken’s Midwest Values PAC gave $61,000 to candidates at this point in 2015, including several highly touted Democrats — Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Jason Kander in Missouri — who seemed poised to knock off incumbent Republicans, but ended up losing on Election Day. Klobuchar’s PAC gave $31,000 to candidates at this point in 2015, but supplemented that with a $30,000 contribution to the DSCC.

Showing momentum

There are a few reasons Franken and Klobuchar are giving more and earlier to Democratic candidates, according to Gordie Loewen, a longtime DFL campaign operative.

For one, this bad map, and the prospect of losing seats, can be a big motivator to do more. “What you’re seeing is the difference between a good map with room to grow and a tough map with only a few places to go,” Loewen says.

Beyond that, they are donating to colleagues they know and, as is often the case, like. “It’s easier to invest in someone you know and someone who has a track record,” he says, instead of challengers they may not know as well.

This early flush of cash from the likes of Franken, Klobuchar, and other senators has practical benefits for candidates, but it also demonstrates a campaign’s viability early on — and could help scare away potential challengers.

Many factors influence whether someone decides to run for office, but a potential opponent’s fundraising pace is certainly one of them, says Loewen. Strong fundraising numbers for a few quarters, he says, could convince a prospective candidate that they may not be able to keep up.

Though it’s early, some high-profile Republicans, once expected to run in 2018, have decided to pass on this cycle. Two GOP House members from Missouri, Ann Wagner and Vicky Hartzler, were considered likely to challenge the incumbent McCaskill — both declined. In Wisconsin, U.S. House Rep. Sean Duffy has passed on challenging Sen. Baldwin.

For the Senate Democrats under siege, the perception of momentum — often judged by campaign cash — is important to maintain, with the stakes being so high.

“I think both our senators are good team players,” Loewen said. “I think they both realize that now more than ever, there’s an urgency to this. It’s more important to be a team player in the time of resisting Trump.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/04/2017 - 08:51 am.

    Jon Ossoff proved, beyond any doubt, that there just isn’t enough greenbacks to bridge the divide between liberals and ex-urban America. Every metric suggests the DNCC is in for a real whipping next year.

    The big races will be between faithless GOP Senators that failed to repeal Obamacare, and their more conservative primary challengers.

    Expect Trump to play a yuge part…gonna be very entertaining.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/04/2017 - 10:10 am.

      Um, what?

      Ossoff nearly won a long-time Republican district, so I’m not sure why you think that proves anything.

      Not sure what metrics you are looking at, but the Democrats have big leads in generic congressional balloting.

      I expect that will get worse as Trump continues to implode and Republicans abandon him.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/04/2017 - 10:20 am.

      Entertaining? Bigly!

      “Every metric suggests the DNCC is in for a real whipping next year.” Every metric, that is, except the historical trend that has the party of the President losing votes in the mid-term election. There is also the unprecedented unpopularity of the sitting President. But if we ignore reality, yes, it’s gonna be whippin’ time!

      “The big races will be between faithless GOP Senators that failed to repeal Obamacare, and their more conservative primary challengers.” The “faithless” ones were acting in response to their constituents, who thought repeal and do nothing was a bad idea. In any event, Sen. Collins is not up for re-election until 2020 and Sens. Collins and McCain are not up for reelection until 2022, so anyone who runs against them from the right in 2018 will be the subject of much deserved ridicule.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/04/2017 - 11:24 am.

      Every Metric Except

      The generic ballot.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/04/2017 - 03:13 pm.

      Come to the altar and recieve communion

      Faithless GOP Senators indeed.

      Devilish RINOs all!

      They need to be shunned and stoned (by PAC ads), excommunicated, cast out into the wilderness and replaced by the Pure.

      How DARE they vote against denying health care to 15 to 25 million Americans!?

      How DARE they deprive America’s most financially blessed of $800 billion more in tax reductions!?

      They have sinned and sinned deeply.

      You must pray for them in earnest as you go about your daily rounds, loving your neighbor the same way you love yourself.

      No wonder the conservative writer, Jennifer Rubin, asked the question last week,

      “Does the GOP deserve to survive, or is it morally corrupted and politically deformed to such an extent that those of good conscience must start anew?”

      Morally corrupt? Politically deformed? Start anew?


      She she must have been talking about those faithless types you’ve identified because, if she wasn’t, what kind of Republican — what kind of Republican values, thought and actions — would that leave?

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/04/2017 - 07:56 pm.

        Thats a good story for faithless GOP Senators to tell liberal audiences. Won’t save them, probably, but what the heck.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/07/2017 - 09:15 am.

          Denounce the Faithless!

          I can’t help but think that the Faithless Three-all experienced and seasoned politicians–know what their constituencies want. It seems pretty clear that they would have a better understanding of that than internet commentators in Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by John N. Finn on 08/05/2017 - 11:36 am.

    Clarify please

    “Klobuchar’s Follow the North Star Fund gave $65,000 to 11 Democrats,…. gave the maximum $10,000 to two incumbents …. gave $5,000 to Manchin, Brown, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, among others.”

    Gave $65K to each of the eleven or to divide among them, $5K to each or …. and so forth for the other amounts?

    Whatever it is, I’m assuming the biggest campaign expense is media buys, mostly TV and cable. I’d like to see what would happen if a campaign didn’t and relied on news organizations to inform the electorate. Would media viewers seeing only one side’s constant message and/or attack ads make the effort to seek out facts and who’s policies advance their interests? I know, not going to happen, just wondering.

  3. Submitted by Jim Peterson on 08/07/2017 - 12:00 pm.

    Democrat Death by GOPymander

    GOP gerrymandering cannot be undone, and the principles of democracy have been redistricted into a joke. Reference: this current administration.

  4. Submitted by Michael Tierney on 08/30/2017 - 10:10 pm.

    Back to the Basics

    You want to know why Jon Ossoff lost his race – simple, he didn’t live in the district that he was running to represent. Back to the Basics

    Clinton didn’t loose because of Russian Hacks, Emails, Electoral College or anything else. She lost because she didn’t visit Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania in the last week of the campaign – Back to the Basics.

    Gerrymandering has been around forever, the DFL in Minnesota were experts at it – but Gerrymandering is a function of State Gov’t – want to change the District Lines in Minnesota? Elect Democrats in Minnesota – or any other States – Back to the Basics.

    Gore lost the Election, but had more Votes than Bush – Damn Electoral College – So for the next 8+ years how many pieces of mail did you get from the Democrats talking about the need to change the Constitution to modify, if not get rid of the Electoral College in it’s entirety? Me too not one piece. In 2009 the Democrats held both Houses of Congress and the Presidency – to you remember any talk about Electoral College – now Hilary lost the election, but had most of the Votes and it is a big deal again – Lets start talking about ways of changing the law NOW – Not 4 to 8 years from now – Back to the Basics.

    I am sure there are more examples and I am sure there will be arguments on my examples – if there wasn’t you wouldn’t be Democrats –

Leave a Reply