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Tim Walz isn’t on the ballot in 2020. So why is he raising money as if he is?

The Walz campaign’s frantic appeals offer a case study in modern campaign fundraising tactics, with perpetual requests that play on emotion, partisanship and the pressure of (sometimes fake) deadlines. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz isn’t on the ballot this year, the first time he hasn’t had to campaign in an even-year election in 14 years.
Minnesota residents who are on Gov. Tim Walz’s email list might think the DFL governor is in the midst of a fight for his political life.

Ten times in August, 14 times in September and twice so far in October, the Walz campaign has gone to its mailing list to ask for money, sometimes in frantic terms and sometimes on the cusp of self-defined campaign finance deadlines.

“We know 2022 seems like a long way off with much on the line right in front of us, but that’s exactly why it’s so important that we not only win on November 3rd but win BIG,” wrote Team Walz after Mike Lindell, the founder of My Pillow promised to run for governor if Minnesota voted for President Trump.

“We can’t catch a break, friends. Donald Trump just announced he is coming back to Minnesota NEXT FRIDAY,” Team Walz wrote on Sept. 12. That message described a “50 days out” deadline that arrived the next day. On Sept. 30, the campaign urged donors to help it meet the “end of quarter deadline before Election Day.”

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But Walz isn’t on the ballot this year, the first time he hasn’t had to campaign in an even-year election in 14 years. As such, he isn’t required to file any reports with the state Campaign Finance Board until Jan. 31 of next year. Because all 201 legislative seats are on the ballot next month, the only state elected officials who don’t have to report campaign finance activity this year are the five statewide elected officials.

And even if Walz were subject to state reporting laws this year, there’s no such thing as an end-of-quarter deadline. 

So why so frantic? 

What these emails show is the perpetual campaign and the psychology of email (and text message) based fundraising that is universal across party and geography. It displays a common trait of these types of appeals: emotional and partisan, with a request to be part of a team and to make a difference. Deadlines, real and imagined, are common as well.

A steady stream of guilt, pressure and imaginary deadlines

While the Walz campaign talks about its own re-election in the appeals, most cite the presidential election and the DFL attempt to retake the state Senate majority it lost in 2016. Republicans hold a 35-32 majority in the chamber, so flipping just two seats would give the DFL control. If the party does that and holds its majority in the House, the DFL will control the legislative process for the next two years, including the redistricting of legislative and congressional lines.

One late September email signed by former Vice President Walter Mondale states that if President Trump wins Minnesota “his divisive brand of politics could win complete control of Minnesota’s Legislature.” The campaign sent out special appeals after the state Senate voted to not confirm two of Walz’s commissioners.

On Sept. 2, Walz himself signed an appeal that asked for a split donation between his campaign and the Senate DFL caucus. “If we help them keep the pressure on over the next 67 days, we can absolutely do this,” he wrote.

Another appeal in February combined deadline pressure with an assertion that a potential donor wasn’t helping out. “We’re trailing behind our budget projections and we need at least $2,500 by Monday night to catch up before session starts,” the email from Team Walz-Flanagan stated. “According to our records, we’re still missing your support this year.”

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But is Walz spending any of the money he is raising off the fight for the state Senate on those campaigns? Again, his campaign won’t report until January, but as of the Sept. 15 reporting cutoff, there were no direct contributions to the state DFL, the House DFL caucus or the Senate DFL caucus.

Teddy Tschann
Office of the Governor
Teddy Tschann
Teddy Tschann, Walz’s press secretary and an after-hours spokesperson for the campaign, said Walz isn’t writing checks to the caucuses or the state party, but he does do fundraising events and other appearances on their behalf. He counted 160 different appearances — in person and virtual — by Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in support of the party, the party’s two legislative caucuses and individual candidates.

“The governor raises all ships,” Tschann said. “He’s the heavyweight and even if he’s not on the ballot, his administration is.” 

But Walz’s own re-election is top of mind for the campaign. In his first year in office, Walz raised $1.068 million, a total Tschann said is a record for a sitting governor in his first year. That total included $815,506 from individuals, $125,600 from political committees and $62,770 from registered lobbyists and lobbying firms. The campaign ended 2019 with $828,360 cash on hand.

“It takes resources to campaign and it takes money to raise money,” Tschann said. “If we’re going to have what we need, we need to start now. 2022 isn’t that far away.”

While the Walz campaign talks about its own re-election in the appeals, most cite the presidential election and the DFL attempt to retake the state Senate majority it lost in 2016.
Screen shot
While the Walz campaign talks about its own re-election in the appeals, most cite the presidential election and the DFL attempt to retake the state Senate majority it lost in 2016.
There is no campaign staff yet, except for a single fundraising consultant, Berrett Gall, who sometimes signs the email appeals as finance director. The campaign also has contracted with the political consulting firm New Partners, paying it $39,500 last year. “The party is, in many ways, the governor’s campaign,” Tschann said. Party staffers help with social media and communications until a full-time campaign is formed, probably next year.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
Ken Martin, state DFL chair, said he appreciated the help Walz has given the party and the legislative campaigns. “Tim Walz is absolutely on a mission. He’s like a dog with a bone,” Martin said. “He knows if he’s going to get anything done in the Legislature he has to flip that Senate. So he’s raising money and he’s spending money. He’s doing a lot to help our legislative caucuses.

“He doesn’t need any prodding from the state party.” Martin said. “He is doing stuff with the party on paid programs, is a partner in our coordinated campaign and put a lot of money into helping Democrats win up and down the ballot.”

Martin said fundraising isn’t a zero sum game; the money Walz raises isn’t taking away from money that could be raised by Democrats on the 2020 ballot. “He’s governor and he’s a very popular governor, and at the end of the day he’s able to raise money and help us win,” said Martin. “So be it. Anytime we can get him out there campaigning for our candidates it helps.”

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Maintaining contact, using ‘activating moments’

“I’m so grateful for your support, friends,” Walz himself wrote on Oct. 7. “Not only did we hit our crucial end-of-quarter budget target last week, we exceeded it.”

The only time the campaign faced an actual deadline this year was just prior to the start of the Legislative session in February. Incumbents are not allowed to solicit or receive donations during regular sessions, so after a pair of appeals to beat that deadline, the campaign stopped asking. 

It did not, however, stop writing.

Emails invited supporters to watch Walz’s state of the state speech; to stay safe during the pandemic; and on April 6 — in an email signed by first lady Gwen Walz — to sign a birthday card for the governor’s 56th birthday.

The campaign did not make appeals in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the unrest that followed. But when it resumed fundraising on June 30, it referred to the death and blamed the Senate GOP for not passing a police reform bill or a bonding bill.

It then used a familiar set of hot-button people and issues: Trump, his family, the “My Pillow guy,” and the Senate GOP voting not to confirm two of his commissioners. “With Minnesota at the top of the far-right wing’s target list of flippable states, it’s impossible to overstate how critical these next 27 days are,” read one appeal. “But thanks to you, we have the resources to keep fighting.”

Tom Perron, a national fundraising consultant for Democratic campaigns who returned to his home state of Minnesota in 2005, said the fundraising calendar changed for Democrats after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. The 42nd president began raising money for his next election shortly after his previous one. “It was the Clinton years when fundraising began transforming into a nonstop operation,” Perron  said. “Senators — and governors, for that matter — followed suit and started a perpetual fundraising operation.”

Walz is raising money from his email lists partly because it is easier for a state candidate to use that money to help other state candidates. He’s also doing so, Perron said, because those lists need to be maintained. That is, a campaign can’t let them go dark for three years and expect them to remain potent come election year.

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And anyone who gets these types of emails and text messages knows how dependent they are on news events, to “activating moments.”

“It’s great that you have a list of a million people but they often don’t care to read or give until something shocking happens … for example, the president appoints a very conservative Supreme Court justice,” Perron said. 

For Sen. Tina Smith, it might be such an appointment, or it might be a poll that shows Jason Lewis closer than most of the other polls or a visit to the state by Trump. Walz too sends up warnings when the president campaigns in Minnesota or when a potential opponent surfaces in the news. He has made repeated appeals based on the possible challenge from Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow Guy.”

Does it work?

“If  5 percent of a million people reply, that’s real money, and if an officeholder sends 2-4 emails a week over the course of a few months, it really adds up,” Perron said. 

Candidates and committees trade lists and sign emails to other people’s list as one way to grow their own donors and keep them engaged. And when Walz’s campaign does next report to the state Campaign Finance Board, it wants to show a big bankroll.

“Money is strength,” Perron said.