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In surveying the 2012 campaign cash landscape in Minnesota, it’s not immediately obvious who’s going to help Republican legislators defend their majorities.

Spending for those who can’t

GOP operative Chris Tiedeman says a reworking of the prominent political fund Minnesota’s Future is under way. Minnesota’s Future raised $1.4 million during the 2010 cycle. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

First money reports of 2012 campaign do little to clarify which PACs will lead effort to defend GOP majorities

In surveying the 2012 campaign cash landscape in Minnesota, it’s not immediately obvious who’s going to help Republican legislators defend their majorities.

The Republican Party of Minnesota, which was heavily involved in electing Republicans to the Legislature in 2010, is mostly out of the campaign mix this year as it battles roughly $2 million in debt from the last election cycle. That’s even as the party faces a July 3 campaign finance board meeting that could yield fines for unreported debts and further balloon the state GOP’s deficit. In addition, the photo I.D. and gay marriage constitutional amendments that Republicans put on the ballot are sure to suck up campaign dollars that otherwise might have gone toward legislative races.

On the left, a dependable trio of third-party spending groups is intact and already pulling in cash. Win Minnesota, the 2010 Fund and Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), then run by executive director Denise Cardinal, teamed up to spend about $6 million on the gubernatorial election last cycle, delivering a significant blow to failed GOP candidate Tom Emmer in a television ad pointing to his decades-old drunk driving arrests. The 2012 Fund has officially been registered, and so far this year the three groups have raised a combined $1.5 million, according to campaign finance reports released this week.

The groups will operate in much the same way they have in the past, with Win Minnesota and the 2012 Fund pulling in the major donations and funneling that money to media-savvy attack group ABM. “We feel like we are in a strong position,” ABM Executive Director Carrie Lucking said this week.

That has Republicans worried, especially with a steady DFL donor base that includes Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger, the former South Minneapolis resident and ex-wife of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. About $500,000 of Win Minnesota’s fundraising haul for 2012 came directly from Messinger. It was enough to prompt freshman Republican Rep. Mary Franson to pipe up in a recent House GOP campaign kickoff event, taking the podium to say Messinger was ready to hand DFL majorities to Dayton on a “silver platter.”

But while the right has yet to offer any public indication of mobilizing to create its own answer to ABM, operatives have been working behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a patchwork effort that will pull in corporate interests and national Republican groups to reelect Republican majorities in Minnesota.

GOP groups form anew in 2012

The campaign reports for political funds due this week did little to clarify the GOP spending picture, partially because details concerning how the groups will collaborate have yet to be worked out.

GOP operative Chris Tiedeman says a reworking of the prominent political fund Minnesota’s Future is under way. Minnesota’s Future raised $1.4 million during the 2010 cycle, with nearly all of that cash coming in from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) to support Emmer. The group was run by Tiedeman and connected to Minnesota native and now Republican National Committee chief of staff Jeff Larson.

This year, the PR shop Weber Johnson is looking to partner with the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) — the legislative equivalent to the RGA — to spend money on behalf of Republican candidates. Tiedeman says political observers shouldn’t expect to see spending from the group until the late summer or early fall.“Minnesota’s Future has been around in one form or another in the last few election cycles, and we will be back,” Tiedeman said. “We just haven’t finalized the details.”

Business groups are also quietly working behind the scenes to revamp 2010 efforts to capitalize on the post-Citizens United era of corporate contributions. Following the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that peeled back restrictions on corporate and union giving, the political fund MN Forward was quick to try tapping deep-pocketed corporate networks.

But MN Forward, run by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty chief of staff Brian McClung and the Minnesota Business Partnership, saw its efforts crippled early in the campaign season after Target Corp. received blowback from gay rights groups for donating $150,000 to the group. MN Forward supported the candidacy of Emmer, who was openly opposed to gay marriage.

Target Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel ultimately apologized for his company’s contribution, but the debacle put a damper on MN Forward’s campaign goals for 2010. The group ultimately spent $1.7 million on the gubernatorial contest, significantly less than an initial $10 million fundraising goal cited in an internal memo. When it comes to the fate of MN Forward in 2012, Minnesota Business Partnership spokesman Mark Giga said only that they are keeping their “options open.” MN Forward reported no money raised in 2012, but the group still has about $124,000 remaining in the bank from the last cycle. Minnesota Business Partnership’s own political fund had about $163,000 on hand at the end of the reporting period.

This year, the Minnesota Chamber has stepped up with its own corporate contribution PAC. In September 2010, the chamber registered the Pro Jobs Majority PAC. Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy, said the chamber’s Leadership Fund will continue to pull in individual contributions to back legislative candidates and the caucuses that support their pro-jobs agenda. The new PAC will also back “pro-jobs” campaigns, but the group is positioned to pull in unlimited donations from corporations and will not communicate or coordinate with any of the campaigns they support.

“It’s going to be a busy election and a busy summer in terms of not only finding candidates to support but also campaigning,” she said. The group raised only about $22,000 in the final months of 2010, and in 2011, the chamber gave a single donation of more than $130,000 to the PAC. So far this year, the group has raised about $94,000, leaving it with about $225,000 on hand. The chamber’s Leadership Fund raised about $42,000 and has $35,000 on hand. David Olson, the president of the state Chamber of Commerce, is listed as the treasurer for both funds.

The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses (CMB) will also be in the mix. The coalition, comprising 11 employer groups, raised $365,000 for elections in 2010. The CMB currently has only about $20,000 in the bank.

While reports so far this year show Democrats vastly out-raising Republican groups, observers note that some pro-GOP groups, in the interest of operating under the radar, may ask their donors to wait until after the 56-day report to make their contributions.

New and old GOP groups critical of majorities

It was an easy decision for GOP-aligned third-party groups, which had never seen a Republican-led Legislature in action in Minnesota, to support GOP candidates of all stripes in the 2010 election cycle. But this time around, some conservative groups are finding themselves unsatisfied with the work done by Republicans over the last two years.
The Freedom Club state political fund, founded by uber-conservative donor and Primera Technology CEO Bob Cummins and others in the late 1990s, has been credited with helping Republicans take control of the state House in the past and pushing conservative agendas. But this session the Freedom Club put out lit pieces attacking GOP House and Senate members who were reportedly on the fence about a proposed right-to-work constitutional amendment.

That was much to the dismay of GOP leadership, particularly in the House, who were trying to deal with the sensitive political issue internally. Now that the session is over, sources say the Freedom Club is also miffed about the passage of the Vikings stadium bill. Whether that translates into dollars spent directly against Republicans during the campaign season remains to be seen, but sources say that’s unlikely.

“They’ve still got this fear that if they don’t support Republicans, even the moderate ones, that a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature will raise taxes like crazy,” one GOP lobbyist said. “That fear is uniting even some of the most fractured parts of the base.” The Freedom Club has raised only about $3,000 so far this year, but the group has about $280,000 in cash on hand.

In that same vein, Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative group started and funded by the Koch brothers, set up shop in Minnesota late last year and is already getting involved. GOP operative John Cooney has been appointed as director for the group’s Minnesota activities. Cooney worked as a legislative assistant for the state Senate before serving as campaign manager and political director for U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad from 2002 through 2006. Cooney also worked as chief of staff in Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek’s office.

The group has been relatively quiet in Minnesota so far, commissioning a Vikings stadium poll and hosting a tax cut rally with former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. Most recently, the group sent out lit pieces in targeted legislators’ districts. The twist: AFPM is going after Republicans as well as Democrats. GOP Sens. Julie Rosen and Bill Ingebrigtsen, alongside DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, have already been hit with lit pieces from the group over their support for the Vikings stadium.

“We don’t get involved in social issues, we don’t get involved in gambling issues or voter initiatives,” Cooney said. “We really focus on fiscal issues and regulatory issues, and obviously the stadium was a high-profile example of that.”

Cooney says the group will spend its money on a district-by-district basis. They don’t plan to coordinate efforts with other third-party groups. “We don’t endorse candidates, but obviously we gravitate toward conservative policies,” Cooney said. “We do articulate to constituents how their lawmakers voted.”

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