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

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

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.

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.

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.” 

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/18/2018 - 10:03 am.

    Money and message

    Yes, money is important, and without it, the voters don’t even know you’re running, much less what message you’re trying to get across. Nonetheless, and keeping that fiscal fact of life in mind, it seems at least as important that a candidate’s message be one that resonates well with voters. In today’s polarized climate, that reality can cause a lot of heartburn among those making the speeches. Throwing red meat to one’s “true believer’ supporters may simultaneously alienate more moderate citizens the candidate might need to actually win the election.

    Speaking purely personally, I’m not much swayed by TV ads, which is often where the bulk of the money raised is being spent, but plenty of people who don’t read political news with any regularity, or even read ANY sort of news with any regularity, may find a 30-second sound byte persuasive. Those are the people – essentially uninformed citizens – upon whom most of this campaign cash is being spent. I suspect that Founding Fathers at various points along the ideological spectrum might find that modern reality disturbing, but at the same time, when those Founding Fathers were themselves actively engaged in political life, much of the population was badly educated, and many were illiterate, so maybe the “uninformed citizen” isn’t so unusual, after all.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/18/2018 - 10:04 am.

    We’re living in an era of “disruption”

    More than likely no one can predict how this will turn out, but these are not “normal” times we’re living in. One of the more disrupted facets of our society is the electoral arena wherein there’s a clear backlash against status quo candidates in either party. A lot of out-spent candidates have been winning elections in the last two years so I wouldn’t make any assumptions based on fund raising “ability” these days. Furthermore, there may actually be a negative association to big fund raisers and spenders who can actually provoke suspicion if not outright hostility with their elitist associations. I don’t see Walz raising all his money from $5 contributors responding to e-mail appeals. I think Clinton’s ties to big money donors actually hurt her in end, and of course she outspent Trump and still lost.

    For all Walz’s money I still don’t have any real idea what his vision for Minnesota is, and I still have no reason to vote for him beyond the fact that he’s not the Republican candidate. You’d think with all that money he’d be running a visible campaign of some kind?

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/18/2018 - 12:31 pm.

    The third thing – where does the money come from

    Minnesota is a battleground state. Pawlenty hasn’t lived here for years, becoming a multimillionaire by being the front guy for a business lobby group based in the Eastern US. He has come back to be their Trojan horse candidate for national business interests. The article didn’t get into any of this, but he leads in money raising because of his national business buddies who have no ties at all along with the former Minnesota executives who spend at least 6 months and 1 day a year to maintained their residence in Florida without its income taxes.

    I understand the current law, but I think that making campaign contribution in races in states where you don’t live should be banned. We do not need out of state billionaires buying our elections. If you can vote for someone in an election, then you can contribute to them. In particular, no foreign money or in kind contribution should be allowed. In other words, all the Russian dirty tricks in the last election should be costed out and the campaigns that used them fined that amount.

    Corporations and unions are not able to vote. They should not be allowed to contribute to anything others than efforts to increase access to voting, so the country as a whole participates at an 80% level. In other words, less money and more voters.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/18/2018 - 04:43 pm.


    How did the DFL manage to endorse a candidate as inept as Murphy? If she wins the primary, Pawlenty is going to be governor.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2018 - 09:52 am.


      Murphy has a better chance of defeating Pawlenty.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/19/2018 - 12:25 pm.


        Murphy has zero chance of beating Pawlenty. She can’t raise money, ran poorly in her own district, and when she picked Maye Quade, she demonstrated her utter contempt for oustate Minnesota.

        The DFL endorsement process has a long record of picking losers for governor – they haven’t elected a non-incumbeny since Wendell Anderson – but Erin Murphy is a new low.

        Walz or Swanson, on the other hand, would win the election in a lay-up.

        • Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 06/21/2018 - 06:44 pm.

          I agree on Walz

          But I think Swanson missed her opportunity to gain traction in the race by staying with AG until June. I don’t think she has a lane at this point. And as far as Murphy goes, the 86,000 won’t cut it, and it’s hard to see the DFL giving her too much money ahead of the upcoming fights against Housley and Pawlenty

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/18/2018 - 05:21 pm.

    Citizens United

    The problem is not direct campaign financing, but anonymous money dumped into the race to fund advertising at the last minute.
    And on unions vs. corporations.
    Unions are membership organizations — the members vote on their leadership and thus have ultimate control over the actions of the union.
    Corporations (even publicly held ones) are run by chief executives. Most shareholders have little control over the actions of the corporation. And of course privately held corporations have even more centralized control.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2018 - 09:56 am.

    At any rate, this funding actually tell us nothing

    I don’t think there any serious analysis that can claim to predict election outcomes based on funding at this stage in the election. And simply looking at the numbers without considering the sources is even less illuminating. Bad candidates blow a lot of money losing, and good candidates win regardless.

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