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The four partisan caucuses that make up the Minnesota Legislature raised millions of dollars for their campaigns in 2011.

Legislative caucuses: They’re in the money

At least three of four set non-election-year fundraising records

The four partisan caucuses that make up the Minnesota Legislature raised millions of dollars for their campaigns in 2011. And despite their newfound majorities, Republicans in both chambers have only a slight money edge over the DFL caucuses as they head toward a contentious election battle this fall.

As the numbers break down in the House, Republicans raised more than $1 million, while House Democrats pulled in nearly $861,000 in their first year as a minority caucus — their largest non-election year fundraising haul ever. In the Senate, Republicans brought in about $856,000. That put them in a dead heat with their DFL rivals in the chamber, who raised $854,000 in the same period.

Sources from both sides of the aisle were surprised by how high fundraising numbers clocked in for the year, particularly in view of the downtrodden economy and the widespread dissatisfaction with lawmakers of all stripes during last July’s government shutdown. But campaign leaders say the shutdown raised the stakes for both sides, and donors are flocking in larger numbers to the caucuses as they seek to maintain — or overturn — the Legislature’s GOP majorities.

“Although it would be convenient and nice to assign us all the credit for the result,” said House DFL Rep. Steve Simon, who acts as his caucus’ treasurer, “there are a lot of people out there who are just shocked and alarmed at what’s going on at the Capitol and who have reacted by giving.”

House caucuses awash in cash

The House Republican Campaign Committee still retains a sizable $742,000 in the bank of the $1 million it raised in 2011, which flowed in from small donors across the state and from the caucus’ traditional major donors. That includes GOP uber donor Bob Cummins, who donated $125,000 to the caucus, and Pawn America Chief Executive Officer Brad Rixmann, who gave about $37,500 to House Republicans. Harold Hamilton, the chief executive officer of Coon Rapids-based Micro Control, donated $31,000 to the caucus.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers said the 2011 numbers were higher than expected. The House Republican election chief spent much of the fall and summer crisscrossing the state to attend fundraisers and Republican Party events. He headlined a prominent GOP fundraiser in Wayzata last year with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
“Our strong numbers reflect support for the Republican agenda of jobs, economic opportunity, education reform and government reform,” Zellers said in a statement. Neither Zellers nor House Republican Campaign Committee treasurer Jenifer Loon could be reached for comment.

House Democrats raised $861,000 in 2011 between their state and federal campaign finance reports, and have about $410,000 cash on hand. (As of Dec. 31, the state report listed $383,000 in cash on hand.)

The DFL contributions came mostly in the form of small donations, but the caucus received $26,000 from Education Minnesota, $13,000 from the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and a slew of other donations from union groups in several-thousand-dollar increments. Salvador and Mia Mendoza gave nearly $25,000 to the caucus, but it was philanthropist and major DFL donor Alida Messinger who gave the single largest contribution, $52,000.

House DFLers were quick to emphasize a few key points regarding their fundraising haul: First, it’s about $200,000 more than they raised in 2005, the last non-election year in which DFLers were the minority party in the House. It’s also more than the Republican House caucus raised in 2009, the non-election year before their 2010 ascension to the majority.

House Democrats also pulled in cash from more than 5,000 individual donors, a significant increase in the caucus’ small-sum donor base. House DFL campaign director Zach Rodvold, who ran Tarryl Clark’s failed bid for Congress in 2010, said the large donor base signals support in numbers for Democrats. “We have the kind of grass-roots financial support that will help sustain an aggressive election effort,” he said. “I believe that effort will lead to a new DFL majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives.”

Simon says he is “extremely encouraged” by their fundraising last year, adding, “It’s a huge accomplishment for us.” But he is quick to note that fundraising numbers don’t necessarily spell victory. In 2010, the House DFL caucus outraised Republicans in the chamber almost two-to-one. “We saw what the result of that was,” Simon said. By his account, an influx of GOP-backing independent expenditure groups played a big role in Republican victories in 2010.

“One of the great equalizers was these outside groups that do independent expenditures on behalf of candidates,” Simon said. “While we are thrilled with the results here, we understand that the Republican [caucus fundraising] report will not be the whole story.”

Senate caucus fundraising neck-and-neck

The Senate Republican caucus came in just $2,000 ahead of Senate Democrats for the year, raising $856,000 compared with the DFL’s $854,000. Both Senate caucuses noted in media releases that they set non-election-year records for total donations. But Republicans had a substantial edge in year-end cash on hand, with $693,000 in the bank. The DFL caucus ended the year with $403,000 in cash.

Senate Republicans raised their money in many of the same places House GOPers did, including similar-size gifts from Cummins and Hamilton. Rixmann gave the Senate a little less than he gave the House, around $22,000. Hubbard Broadcasting head and longtime GOP donor Stanley Hubbard gave nearly $25,000 to the Senate GOP, while retired Target Chief Executive Officer Robert Ulrich gave about $50,000. The teachers union Education Minnesota showed up on the Senate GOP report, too, donating about $7,500.

Republicans in the Senate could not be reached for comment on their fundraising report, and it’s unclear who in the caucus is charged with leading the Senate Victory Fund after the December leadership debacle that saw former Majority Leader Amy Koch and her entire leadership team resign. Koch and former Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel are still listed as chair and treasurer of the fund.

In their first year in the minority, the DFL Senate caucus pulled in about $854,000 and have about $403,000 cash on hand. And as in the House, Senate Democrats also raised a record-breaking amount from small donors. Mike Kennedy, the Senate DFL’s lead staffer on caucus elections, said the caucus raised $75,000 more in small donors in 2011 than it did in the election year of 2010.

But the report also includes several large donations from Education Minnesota, which also gave the Senate DFLers about $26,000, and from Dr. Robert Haselow and Justine Haselow, who gave the caucus about $23,000. (The Haselows have given generously to candidates and party units across the political spectrum in recent years as they have battled to keep in place a moratorium on the construction of new radiation oncology facilities in the Twin Cities.) Messinger also gave to the Senate DFLers but only $2,000.

“We got our ass kicked in 2010, and I think in the disaster that was the 2011 session — the Titanic of all legislative sessions — Democrats got fired up,” Kennedy said. “They saw the consequences both in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and knowing we were 8,000 votes away from being Wisconsin, they got fired up and they got involved.”

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