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Meet the major ‘independent expenditure’ committees involved in Minnesota’s 2018 election (so far)

A look at the organizations who having filling the airwaves, and the mail, with messages aimed at boosting — and bashing — primary candidates.

Examples of this year's election mailings and online ads from independent expenditure committees.
MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

The campaign ads and mailings that will begin appearing with greater frequency in the run up to Minnesota’s Aug. 14 primary will be brought to you by the candidates for governor and attorney general.

Or not.

A handful of new, so-called independent expenditure campaigns, along with some long-standing political action committees, are beginning use money they’ve raised to both boost their favored candidates — and bash others. 

There are at least three reasons donors might prefer going through an independent expenditure committee rather than simply donating directly to candidates. 

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The first is that there are no caps on contributions to an independent committee. A donor can only give $4,000 directly to a candidate, but some donors give as much as $100,000 to political committees. 

A donor to an independent committee can also demand more say in how his or her money is spent: not just who to support or oppose but the type of message. 

Finally, an independent committee — though legally separate from a campaign — can do things a candidates might not want to do. Specifically, they can deliver negative messages about other candidates. That doesn’t always work out, though, as demonstrated by an October 2017 attack ad on then-St. Paul mayoral candidate Melvin Carter by a committee funded by the St. Paul police union and the chamber of commerce, among others. 

Here’s a look at the major independent expenditure committees active in the 2018 state primary … so far. 

The committee: Alliance for Jobs
Who they’re for/against: pro-Lori Swanson
Alliance for Jobs carried $125,000 over from 2017 and has raised another $210,000 this year. It has sponsored at least two direct mail pieces supporting Lori Swanson-Rick Nolan gubernatorial ticket. In mailing, Swanson is portrayed as someone who will stand up to President Trump on issues such as the travel ban and the separation of families at the southern border.

The big donors to Alliance for Jobs in 2018 are Vance Opperman, president and CEO of Key Investment (which, among other things, owns MSP Communications), who gave $75,000; John and Sue Morrison, who gave $25,000 this year (on top of the $25,000 they gave last year); and Dr. S.K. Dash, founder of biotech company UAS Labs, who gave $10,000 (plus $5,000 last year); and John Fruth, founder of Ocular Sciences, who gave $100,000 after the most-recent state report was filed.

Fruth, Dash and the Morrisons have also each given the maximum-allowed $4,000 directly to the Swanson-Nolan campaign.

The committee: A Minnesota For All of Us
Who they’re for/against: pro-Erin Murphy
As of the state’s July 30 campaign finance filing deadline, this pro-Erin Murphy committee had raised $50,000: all of it from the public employee union AFSCME Council 5. Since then, it has filed two 24-hour notice reports showing another $50,000 in contributions each from SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and the Minnesota Nurses Association Political Committee.  

No spending was reported through the third week of July, but ads from the group have begun showing up on Facebook. The message: “Erin Has Always Been On The Side of the People.”  

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The committee: Minnesota Victory Fund
Who they’re for/against: pro-Tim Walz
The independent expenditure committee has already been placing TV ads to boost Walz, and is the most well-financed of any of the independent expenditure committees involved in the governor’s race, showing $517,500 raised this year. Since then, the committee has added another $162,500 from six donors.

Of its expenditures, $311,000 has gone to the Fairfax, Virginia media-buying firm, Screen Strategies Media. The committee also paid $45,700 to the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

The committee’s donors include both individuals and unions. James Lawrence, who has been a major donor to both national and state Democratic efforts, donated $50,000. Jeffrey Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel Foods, donated $50,000, as did William H. Walter, a commercial real estate investor. Robert Pohlad, of the Pohlad Companies, gave $75,000.

Among the unions that contributed to the Minnesota Victory Fund are Education Minnesota ($100,000); Laborers District Council ($80,000); Minnesota Association of Professional Employees ($75,000); Minnesota Pipe Trades Association ($50,000); Local 49 Engineers ($25,000); Iron Workers 512 (($25,000); and Sheet Metal Workers PAC 10 ($15,000).

The committee: Minnesotans for Bold Reform
Who they’re for/against: pro-Jeff Johnson/anti-Tim Pawlenty
Web ads from the committee that was formed this year began appearing this week. They are a combination of promoting Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and attacking former governor Tim Pawlenty, who are vying for the Republican nomination for governor. One ad featured a photo of President Trump with the message, “Tim Pawlenty abandoned Trump in 2016. Jeff Johnson supported Trump,” and includes a link to the group’s website.

The committee’s first filing showed that it had raised $65,000, but a 24-hour notice filing — a state requirement for large donations that come in after the pre-primary report and before the primary election — reported that Joan Cummins had donated $100,000. She is the wife of Bob Cummins, co-founder of the Freedom Club. The couple is a major donor to conservative and Republican candidates and causes.

Other large donors include Philip Lindau, who has given $25,000, Ronald Smith, of St. Paul, who has given $10,000; Mick Lee, of Golden Valley, who has given $10,000; and John Swanson, of Plymouth, who has given $10,000. Lindau is the group’s chair and Swanson is its treasurer.

A disclosure form also shows that the group has paid for some polling to “learn what will encourage votes for Jeff Johnson,” but no web advertising purchases showed up on the pre-primary report.

The committee: Minnesota Action Network
Who they’re for/against: pro-Tim Pawlenty
The independent expenditure committee was set up in 2014 and has been used since then to support Republican candidates. The current chair is former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. In 2016, the committee focused on state Senate races, and earlier this year, it spent money promoting GOP candidate Denny McNamara for the open state Senate seat in District 54, which was eventually won by the DFL’s Karla Bingham. This election, it is promoting Pawlenty’s campaign for governor.

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Of the money the committee received this year, $100,000 came from the Senate Victory Fund; $10,000 from the Minnesota Chamber’s Pro Jobs Majority PAC; and two donors who have already given the maximum $4,000 to Pawlenty’s campaign. They are former Target CEO Bob Ulrich, who contributed $50,000; and Ben Whitney, former U.S. Ambassador to Norway, who gave $20,000.

The committee: People’s Lawyer
Who they’re for/against: pro-Keith Ellison
On its website, this independent expenditure campaign says “We don’t accept donations from lobbyists, Wall Street bankers and people hurting middle class Minnesotans.”

So who does it accept money from?

According to filings with the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, People’s Lawyer has raised $190,000, with only one donor having a Minnesota address. That would be Vance Opperman, who gave it $50,000. The other large donors are Stephen Silberstein, of Belvedere, CA, who gave $20,000; and Alexander Soros, of New York City, who gave $100,000.

Soros is the son of billionaire investor and political activist George Soros and has his own foundation. He also is deputy chair of the Open Societies Foundation.

At the time of the last filing, the largest expense of the committee was for $25,500 for a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners about the attorney general election. Some of its findings are on the People’s Lawyer website.

The committee: Alliance for a Better Minnesota
Who they’re for/against: anti-Tim Pawlenty
Alliance for a Better Minnesota is part of a batch of liberal-progressive-DFL committees that often work together to promote DFL candidates and causes. Money often moves among ABM, WIN Minnesota and, more recently, the 2018 Fund. The 2018 Fund, for instance, has already donated $1.5 million toward ABM’s reported contributions this year of $4.19 million, while WIN Minnesota has given $2.637 million. ABM also received $50,000 from James Lawrence, who was also a major funder of the 2017 committee Minneapolis Works, which was formed to help many of the incumbents on the Minneapolis City Council.

Donors to the 2018 Fund include Democratic political organizations and unions. The national AFSCME union sent $600,000, while the state AFSCME council donated $100,000. The State Victory Action committee, which focuses on swing states, sent $372,000, while the Democratic Governors Association gave $50,000.

WIN Minnesota has raised $2.442 million so far this year from both individuals and unions. Alida Messinger, a philanthropist and major donor to DFL candidates and liberal causes, gave $400,000. Vance Opperman gave $100,000.

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This election, ABM has created an anti-Tim Pawlenty campaign, “Meet Tim Pawlenty.” The committee has spent money with two media firms:  $605,000 with the Oakland, CA-based Clarify Agency and $1.34 million with Great American Media in Washington, D.C.

The committee: Housing First Fund
Who they’re for/against: pro-Tim Pawlenty
There will be other independent committee expenditures throughout the campaign that will look like this one: ongoing political committees that will launch efforts to aid favored candidates. The Housing First Fund is affiliated with the homebuilding industry and the Building Association of the Twin Cities. It spent money to boost Denny McNamara in the District 54 special election earlier this year, and has sent out some pro-Pawlenty mailings this summer, spending less than $10,000. It still has $151,000 in the bank.

Finally, it should be noted that there are three major committees that are expected to be active in the governor’s race but didn’t report activity so far: the business affiliated Pro Jobs Majority (though the Pro Jobs Majority did sponsor of pro-Pawlenty mailing proclaiming him a “Proven” “Conservative” “Leader.”); Minnesota Jobs Coalition; and the progressive TakeAction Minnesota.