Pro-GOP groups go after vulnerable DFL incumbents
While the governor’s race may be the marquee feature in this year’s campaign season, the large number of swing districts in play at the Minnesota Legislature are the object of lower-profile but no less intense campaign spending machinations by a number of groups.
In a year that finds Republicans a aiming to gain ground in the state House and Senate, conservative political action committees are contributing to challengers who are taking on recently elected DFLers in close districts.
The new political action committee Voices of Conservative Women (VCW), which has focused on legislative races, has already met its original fundraising goal of $63,000 for the year. With 40 days to go before November 2, the group has increased its fundraising goal to $75,000, according to the group’s executive director, Jennifer DeJournett.
With a looming budget deficit and several close contests for the statehouse lying dead ahead, DeJournett said her group is motivated.
“If we can raise more money,” she said, “our plans continue expanding. We’re excited.”
Voices of Conservative Women has spent $13,000 so far and still had $32,800 on hand as of September 14. But DeJournett says roughly $20,000 of their take has come in since that reporting deadline.
The group is planning a radio advertising buy and YouTube video for one greater-Minnesota GOP House candidate who is vying for a seat currently held by a DFLer.
VCW given $400 to GOP House District 11B candidate Mary Franson. The group also gave $400 this month to help former Rep. Sondra Erickson in her rematch against Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson, DFL-Milaca.
Other GOP challengers who received the group’s financial support this month are Jennifer Gumbel (District 27B, challenging Rep. Jeanne Poppe), Kathy Green (27, challenging Sen. Dan Sparks), Gretchen Hoffman (10, challenging Sen. Dan Skogen), Andrea Kieffer (56B, challenging Rep. Marsha Swails) and Kathy Lohmer (56, challenging Rep. Julie Bunn).
The group gave $400 to several other challengers in July. Among them was Michelle Benson, who is running against DFLer Paul Meunier for the open Senate District 49 seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Debbie Johnson of Ham Lake. Benson said the group is “the answer to” EMILY’s List.
While EMILY’s List hasn’t spent much on legislative races, another PAC called Women Winning has been active on the DFL side. Women Winning has contributed $500 apiece this month to a group of DFL candidates that includes Denise Bader (33A, challenging Rep. Steve Smith), and Laurie Olmon (48A, running against Rep. Tom Hackbarth).
Many big donor PACs – those with $100,000 or more to spend in an election season – are devoting their money and energy to the governor’s race.
Most big labor unions are fully engaged in a statewide effort to make Mark Dayton the first Democrat to win the governor’s office in 24 years. But Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said the legislative races have an important bearing on how the next governor governs.
“We’re looking for lege candidates who will work with the governor and a governor who will work with the Legislature,” Knutson said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 has devoted significant resources to DFL legislative campaigns. While some legislators representing safe districts, like Rep. Erin Murphy, got smaller checks, DFL challengers and incumbents in hotly contested races often pulled down $500 checks from AFSCME.
They include DFL Reps. Sandy Masin of Eagan, Will Morgan of Burnsville, Paul Rosenthal of Edina, Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids and Sen. Kevin Dahle of Northfield.
Challengers who received AFSCME contributions include Ron Case (District 42, who’s challenging Sen. David Hann), Zak Chlebeck (51A, challenging Rep. Tim Sanders) and Paul Meunier (49, who is running in the open seat being vacated by Sen. Debbie Johnson).
In something of a surprise, political action committees funded by business leaders and corporations have picked a handful of DFL legislative candidates to support. MN Forward – a new PAC that accepts corporate contributions and is run by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s former spokesman, Brian McClung – has spent $856,000 mostly on Republican candidates. But on August 6 the group spent $4,900 on behalf of state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, $5,400 on behalf of Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, and $1,900 to support Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.
Metzen is a key senator on business matters as the chairman of the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee. His committee has bottled up bills opposed by business, such as so-called California curbs on tailpipe emissions.
Bonoff has bucked some of her fellow caucus members by carrying a bill that would provide an alternative path for people to obtain teachers licenses. Pelowski drew the ire of his caucus when he voted against Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s attempt to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of an income tax increase on the state’s highest earners. Earlier this year, Pelowski withstood an endorsement challenge by a labor-backed candidate.
Only Republican legislative candidates, however, are feeling the love from Freedom Club State PAC’s largesse. Since the beginning of July, the organization has contributed roughly $16,000 to Republican candidates. Freedom Club has made most of its contributions to candidates challenging DFL incumbents in swing districts, like business executive Pat Mazorol (who’s running against Rep. Paul Rosenthal in HD 41B) and former GOP Rep. Linda Runbeck (who’s facing off with Rep. Paul Gardner in 53A).
Other business PACs are also spending money against DFLers in competitive races. In August, the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses PAC paid for mailings opposing House DFLers in a number of swing districts, dropping $3,000 against Rep. David Bly of Northfield, $2,700 against Rep. Al Doty of Royalton, $2,800 for Rep. Tim Faust of Mora, and $2,600 each against Reps. Dave Olin of Thief River Falls and John Persell of Bemidji.
The coalition’s activity in August followed similar expenditures against many of the same candidates in May.
The list of Democrats that the Freedom Club PAC has spent money to defeat is extensive: Besides Bly, Doty, Faust and Persell, it includes Reps. Patti Fritz of Faribault, Larry Hosch of St. Joseph, Gail Kulick Jackson of Milaca, Kory Kath of Owatonna, and Andy Welti of Plainview.
Besides third-party PACs, a lot of money flows into legislative races via the four legislative caucuses’ campaign funds, which won’t be filing new reports until shortly before the election. But the campaign finance reports released on Wednesday indicate that PACs are helping party units on both sides get through a very tough fundraising season.
The Senate DFL Caucus, for example, earlier this month received $2,000 from the Minnesota auto dealers PAC. That sum brings the group’s contributions to the Senate DFL for the year up to $13,000. Freedom Club gave the House Republican campaign committee $8,000.
More notably, though, Freedom Club State PAC contributed an eye-catching $400,000 to the Republican Party of Minnesota. This seems sure to touch off speculation that the PAC’s money, which most observers expected to see spent on legislative battles, may wind up getting spent on the governor’s race instead.