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What the latest campaign finance numbers say (and don’t say) about the Minnesota governor’s race

For Pawlenty, spinning his $1.7 million haul was an easy assignment. “Our campaign is well-positioned to take our message to every corner of Minnesota.” 

The first rule of campaign fundraising is to raise more money than the other candidates.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

The first rule of campaign fundraising is to raise more money than the other candidates. The second rule is to make it seem like whatever amount of money you raised is an advantage over the other candidates. Money first. Spin second.

Which is why, within minutes of candidates for governor posting their reports to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board last week, the media statements began to flow, as campaign staffers had been busy crafting statements about the numbers.

What numbers? The two most noticed numbers are the amount raised since the last report, and how much is left to spend.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty raised $1.70 million for his comeback bid in a three-month period ending May 31. Since he spent a little less than $410,000, he had $1.26 million in the bank. And since Pawlenty didn’t formally enter the race until April, he started the reporting period without any money, making his totals even more impressive.

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His GOP rival, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, was well behind Pawlenty’s pace. He raised $163,000 and spent $157,000. It was only because Johnson entered the period with $180,000 that the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor ended the period with $186,000.

For Pawlenty’s team, spinning the number was an easy assignment. “Our campaign is well-positioned to take our message to every corner of Minnesota,” Pawlenty’s statement said.

That is certainly true. And for that Pawlenty thanked supporters, whose help he described as “simply remarkable.”

And Johnson? It would be hard to brag about how much his campaign has raised. And it would be equally hard to assert that it doesn’t matter. So Johnson issued no statement, leaving in place previous statements that he knows he will be outspent by Pawlenty.

Among Democrats, only two of the three major candidates reported last week: U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and state Rep. Erin Murphy. The third, Attorney General Lori Swanson, didn’t get into the governor’s race until after this filing period ended.

Of the two who reported, Walz had the better story to tell. He raised more than $882,000. But he also spent a lot: just shy of $686,000. Only because he brought a lot of cash into the spring did he end the month of May with just over $685,000.

So he and lieutenant governor candidate Peggy Flanagan got to crow a little. “It’s clear:” Walz’ statement said, “Minnesotans are joining our movement to unite this great state.”

Added Flanagan: “We are humbled by this incredible support.” After listing the occupations of regular people who gave money — teachers, nurses, construction workers — Flanagan said: “They are with us, because they know we are with them.”

Walz needs some news that shows momentum because he’s had a shaky month, losing the DFL endorsement to Murphy and then restructuring his campaign staff.

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Murphy has not been a strong fundraiser so far, bringing only $147,000 into the reporting period and raising $258,000 more by May 31. And because she had to spend so much to win the endorsement, she is left with just $86,000 in the bank.

So, how does she make that sound positive? In her statement, Murphy actually tries being frank. She needed to spend money to gain the endorsement, which comes with voter lists and fundraising help from the party. Had she lost it to Walz, her campaign would have ended in Rochester.

“We made a considerable investment, especially on grassroots organizing prior to the DFL convention and it paid off with a decisive victory and momentum going forward,” her statement read.

But then came a little spin. In the same release, Murphy campaign manager James Haggar said: “We were outspent nearly 2-1, and still won the endorsement.”