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MN Forward had bold plans for the 2010 campaign season. Last spring the business-backed political group, a venture jointly launched by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, laid out a fundraising goal of $10 million to bankroll its initial foray into electoral politics, according to a planning document obtained by Capitol Report.

Target/MN Forward debacle dampening corporate indie spending on elections

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Brian McClung of MN Forward: It’s “difficult to predict” money totals. (File photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

MN Forward had bold plans for the 2010 campaign season. Last spring the business-backed political group, a venture jointly launched by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, laid out a fundraising goal of $10 million to bankroll its initial foray into electoral politics, according to a planning document obtained by Capitol Report.

Among the nine Minnesota-based companies targeted for donations of up to $1 million: Best Buy, 3M, Cargill and Target. Ecolab, Hormel and Pentair were among the corporations that MN Forward believed might be willing to cut checks for $500,000. At the $250,000 level, the Schwan Food Company, Regis and the Carlson Companies were envisioned as potential donors.

But as of the September 14 campaign finance filing deadline – with just seven weeks left before the general election – MN Forward had raised only $1.4 million. What’s more, just $250,000 of that bankroll had come in since the July reporting deadline. And the largest single contribution – $150,000 from Target Corporation – was nowhere near the seven-figure sum that the GOP-leaning business group envisioned when the fundraising effort began.

Brian McClung, the business PAC’s executive director and a former top official in Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office, points out that the $10 million figure was established at the very beginning of the group’s efforts to try and quantify possible targets. “This is the first time this type of effort has been possible, so it’s difficult to predict how much money will be raised,” McClung said in an email to Capitol Report. “Our goal is to raise as much as possible.”

The landscape of corporate political giving is uncharted territory in Minnesota. The ramifications of January’s Citizens United ruling by the United States Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates to corporate political contributions, are playing out for the first time this campaign season. But MN Forward’s experience, at least so far, suggests that it might not be the financial windfall for business-friendly politicians that many campaign finance experts had predicted.

The experience of Target Corporation, in particular, is likely to serve as a cautionary tale for corporations eyeing the political battlefield. After news of the retailing behemoth’s six-figure gift to MN Forward surfaced, it was hit by a national outcry. In particular, gay and lesbian organizations felt betrayed by Target’s support for Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, who has been a strong opponent of gay marriage, and called for a national boycott. Under mounting pressure, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel issued an apology to the company’s employees for the political contribution.

David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, says the blowback was entirely predictable. “However you slice it, any retail business, if they spend money for political purposes, they’re probably going to alienate a third, if not half, of their customers right off the bat,” Schultz said. “That was always there, but Target showed that.”

Schultz also theorizes that corporations might be wary of supporting Emmer’s campaign, which was marked by turbulence throughout the summer months. “Emmer has not been a strong candidate, at least through the reporting period,” he said. “A lot of companies might have been looking at it saying gosh, do we want to give this kind of money to somebody who is basically, to that point, running a horrible campaign?”

A federal court ruling handed down recently could also deter companies from making further contributions. A lawsuit filed by a pair of conservative advocacy groups and a local travel agency sought to have Minnesota’s campaign finance disclosure rules invalidated, but U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank declined to issue the requested temporary injunction. The upshot is that companies won’t be able to make anonymous contributions to MN Forward or any other political organization.

Despite MN Forward’s fundraising struggles, the organization is still undoubtedly going to be a significant force in the governor’s race. As of the campaign finance filing deadline, the group had spent roughly $645,000 on television ads either supporting Emmer or criticizing DFL gubernatorial nominee Mark Dayton – leaving it with a tidy $500,000 in cash to spend during the stretch run of the campaign.

“Despite the efforts of some activists to silence legitimate speech and change the debate from jobs and the economy, MN Forward continues to grow,” said McClung. “This is the largest pro-jobs campaign in Minnesota history and we will play a major role [in] electing a governor and legislators that will help businesses grow jobs.”

MN Forward is not the only GOP-aligned independent political organization spending notable amounts of cash on the governor’s race. Minnesota’s Future is connected with Jeff Larson, a prominent national GOP operative who is based in St. Paul, and with Vin Weber, the former GOP congressman who is now a major Washington player. Larson is a founding partner of FLS Connect, one of the country’s largest Republican fundraising firms.

Minnesota’s Future has been registered with the state campaign finance board since 2007, but has largely been dormant until recent weeks. As of this year’s pre-primary campaign finance filing deadline in July, the group had raised no money in 2010 and had just $820 in the bank. Since then the organization has taken in $430,000, but virtually all of that money came from just one source, the Republican Governors Association (RGA).

“We’re working to raise money from associations of people who are interested in taxes and job growth and wasteful spending,” said Chris Tiedeman, chair of Minnesota’s Future. “We’re seeking those people out. The RGA happens to be one of those groups.”

To a certain degree, Minnesota’s Future has played bad cop to MN Forward’s good cop in the governor’s race. The former group’s ads have trashed Dayton as a failed U.S. senator who plans to impose massive, ill-advised tax hikes if he wins the governor’s office. Minnesota’s Future spent $360,000 to air its first commercial, and according to Tiedeman, the group will shell out a similar amount for its second spot. The organization had just over $30,000 in the bank at the end of the campaign filing deadline, but apparently has taken in additional contributions in recent days.

“We’re a new group,” noted Tiedeman. “In terms of the independent expenditures, we felt like we did pretty well. We’re going to keep pushing between now and the end of the election.”

About Paul Demko

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