There wasn’t any congressional election in Minnesota in 2017. But Minnesota’s members of Congress, and their would-be challengers, were raising money like there was one.
Newly released federal campaign finance reports from 2017 revealed that candidates across the state, from U.S. Senate races to U.S. House races, spent the year raising piles of money to support campaigns for an election that looms a year away.
Five candidates for U.S. House, including one challenger, raised over $1 million in the off-year, and several challengers for House seats hauled in totals of a half-million to a quarter-million dollars. Those totals are indicative of a fundraising bonanza for this election cycle around Minnesota — at this point in the 2016 cycle, many of these same candidates had raised a fraction of what they put up in 2017.
If money talks, what it’s saying here is an unequivocal confirmation of what political observers in Minnesota and beyond had anticipated: that 2018 is going to be an intensely competitive, and perhaps historically expensive, election cycle. And Minnesota, a state where two U.S. Senators are up for election and there are more competitive U.S. House races than not, will be a national battleground.
The stakes are high for both parties: Democrats spent 2017 fired up in protest against the presidency of Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress, and are itching to unseat as many Republicans as they can. Meanwhile, the GOP — energized by the tax cut bill passed at the end of the year — is looking to solidify their gains and ward off a blue wave that could wipe out their majorities.
Raising more, and earlier, for 2018
Any way you slice it, 2017 represents a high water mark in Minnesota for campaign fundraising in a non-election year. In particular, there was a marked increase in the amounts of money that congressional campaigns raised in 2017 versus 2015, the last off-year, and a cycle that featured many of the same candidates and challengers.
That increase was apparent across the state, from competitive districts to safe ones, and in a variety of campaigns, from those of entrenched incumbents to those of first-time challengers.
Minnesota’s three Republican members of Congress — Reps. Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer, and Jason Lewis — all posted fundraising totals of over $1 million in 2017. Paulsen and Lewis both face tough races this fall: Paulsen’s suburban 3rd District went decisively for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and the incumbent has faced intense opposition from progressive groups like Indivisible during Trump’s first year in office. Lewis, meanwhile, is a freshman representative who is a top target for Democrats in the purple 2nd District.
Paulsen raised roughly $2 million in 2017, five times more than the $400,000 he netted in 2015. Lewis, who last time around was a candidate trying to gain traction in the open-seat 2nd District race, raised just over $100,000 in 2015. He raised over $1 million in 2017, a tenfold increase.
Both Republicans have been busy on the fundraising circuit: Lewis held a fundraising event in D.C. every week during the month of September — including one headlined by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House’s #2 Republican — as well as a “summer retreat” at a Brainerd resort that cost at least $1,000 to attend.
Paulsen, meanwhile, hosted a September fundraiser in D.C. with Speaker Paul Ryan, and an April “Jeep wine tour weekend” in Santa Barbara, California.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics, says Lewis’ and Paulsen’s strong totals are “indicative of the power of incumbency… but maybe also a defensive posture for Republican incumbents, that there will be a fight for Congress in 2018.”
Paulsen and Lewis’ would-be Democratic opponents, who also raised remarkable numbers for U.S. House challengers, reflect the flip side of that dynamic: the anti-Trump fervor that has welled up around the country and prompted a deluge of donations to Democratic candidates.
Third District candidate Dean Phillips, a wealthy entrepreneur and heir to a distilling fortune, raised $1.2 million in 2017, a sum his campaign says is the largest ever posted by a U.S. House challenger in Minnesota so early in the race.
Angie Craig, the one-time medical device company executive who aims to run against Lewis a second time after losing in 2016, raised $550,000 in 2017, over three times more than the $150,000 she raised in 2015 after entering the 2016 contest early.
Democrats on defense
For candidates like Phillips and Craig, there is pressure to amass lots of money early, so as to edge out other DFL candidates and signal to the D.C. Democratic establishment that they are the most viable options to take out deep-pocketed GOP incumbents.
The anti-Trump energy on the left didn’t only line the pockets of Democratic challengers, however — it’s prompting donors to help keep the seats the party already holds.
Two U.S. Senators are up for election in Minnesota in 2018: Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Al Franken. Smith’s race is the priority for national Democrats, and the former lieutenant governor has less than a year to build a statewide campaign to win what is expected to be a competitive race. Smith was named by Gov. Mark Dayton as Franken’s replacement in early December, and raised $152,000 in that month alone. (Karin Housley, a Republican running for the seat, raised $5,000 more than Smith.)
Two Democratic U.S. House incumbents will face fights this fall: 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan and 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson. They’ve typically lagged behind some DFL peers in fundraising, but the two Democrats got early starts this cycle as they look to keep their seats, which are solidly in Trump country. Peterson raised six times more in 2017 than he did in 2015, and Nolan raised more than three times in 2017 what he did in 2015. (The 8th District has, for the past two cycles, been among the most expensive U.S. House races in the country.)
In these competitive races, observers say that 2018 offers intense motivation on both sides. Luke Hellier, a longtime GOP operative and former aide to Paulsen, says “donors in both the Republican and Democratic parties are motivated… I think, obviously, the Democrats are in the mindset that Republicans were in in 2009, they want to oppose anything the president is doing.” (In the 2010 midterms, Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives, decisively re-taking the majority.)
“On the other side,” Hellier continued, “it’s the closest Republicans came to winning the state in the presidential level in quite a while, so I think that’s a motivating factor.”
Safe incumbents haul in the dough
But each side’s motivation to keep or retake control of Congress doesn’t mean that only candidates in competitive districts are seeing the checks flow in. Emmer and Rep. Keith Ellison both represent safely Republican and Democratic districts, respectively.
Emmer raised $1.2 million in 2017, an increase over the $990,000 he raised in 2015 as a freshman seeking reelection. Ellison raised over $2 million in 2017 — the highest total on the House side of the Minnesota delegation — when he’d raised barely $1 million at this point in the last cycle.
CRP’s Krumholz says that names like Emmer’s and Ellison’s “are known across the state and can clearly draw strong support, even early in the cycle,” and added that safe incumbents “can never stockpile a big enough warchest.”
Ellison and Emmer, who both play prominent roles within their parties, may spread some of that wealth around to help other candidates. (Ellison is deputy chair at the Democratic National Committee, and Emmer is the deputy chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, the GOP’s House campaign arm)
Klobuchar, who is expected to face few challenges en route to a third Senate term, raised money like she was in for a fight: she pulled in $5.5 million in 2017, six times more than what she raised in 2011, the last year before an election year for her. Klobuchar plays a prominent role for Senate Democrats, and she is likely to spread that cash around to benefit her Democratic colleagues, 10 of whom face re-election in states that Trump won in 2016. (For the most prominent Republican challenging Klobuchar, state Rep. Jim Newberger, his year-end reports have not posted and were not shared with MinnPost. His campaign had $20,000 in the bank as of October 1.)
Aides, observers, and lawmakers themselves mostly cited the high stakes of the 2018 midterms — and a political climate in 2017 that galvanized many to open their checkbooks — as the animating factor behind 2017’s big fundraising numbers.
But there is also a sense that, in this high-dollar era in politics, that pressure grows to raise more, and earlier, with each successive election cycle — a state of affairs that seems to exhaust everyone.
“There is no break,” Krumholz says. “The fundraising cycle is 24/7, and there’s no time off even for Senate races at this point. When you don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop or whether it’ll drop in the 11th hour, candidates can’t afford to take their foot off the gas pedal.”
“All signs point to a very historic, a very expensive — perhaps a historically expensive — election.”
Hellier puts it another way: “If you were annoyed by 2016,” he says, “2018 is going to be even worse.”