In many ways the emerging picture looks similar to previous election cycles. The same trio of DFL-aligned groups — Win Minnesota Political Action Fund, Alliance for a Better Minnesota Action Fund and the 2012 Fund — that proved pivotal in helping Mark Dayton become the first DFL governor in more than two decades looks poised once again to play a significant role. The three groups have raised $1.5 million so far this year and closed the filing period with $1.3 million in the bank. As in the last election cycle, their top benefactor is Alida Messinger, Dayton’s ex-wife and an heir to the Rockefeller family fortune. She contributed $500,000 to Win Minnesota and $50,000 to the 2012 Fund.
ABM has already made it clear that winning back the Legislature is the group’s top priority. Even before the legislative session had adjourned, they were up with a web site calling for a “A Better Legislature.” They’ve already spent more than $50,000 on mailings targeting four sitting GOP legislators — Reps. Keith Downey of Edina, David Hancock of Bemidji, and Doug Wardlow of Eagan, and Sen. Ted Lillie of Woodbury — in what are expected to be swing districts. (Downey is running for a Senate seat.)
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem believes that his party will be significantly outspent by the DFL and its allies. “We’re not able to certainly keep up with that level of contributions at all,” Senjem said. “I think we know that. Our efforts are on the sidewalks and at the front doors of houses. … We have to operate at a more street level kind of approach than the DFL.”
Even if that proves to be the case, there will certainly be a significant network of independent expenditure groups aligned with the GOP. With the state Republican Party hobbled by severe financial problems, including roughly $2 million in debt, third-party groups are expected to play an even larger role than usual in bankrolling their electoral efforts. But with just over four months to go before Election Day, the landscape of GOP-aligned independent expenditure groups remains unsettled. Two groups that were extremely active in 2010 — Minnesota’s Future and MN Forward — have been largely dormant so far this year. Combined, they’ve raised just $45,000 and currently have $156,000 in the bank.
Similarly, the Freedom Club State PAC, which typically gets heavily involved in state legislative races, has raised just $3,000, but it did report having nearly $300,000 in the bank. Several other business-aligned groups are likely to emerge as significant players. A pair of PACs affiliated with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have roughly $260,000 cash on hand, while the Minnesota Business Partnership PAC reported just over $160,000 in the bank. All told, significant independent expenditure groups that principally support GOP candidates and causes currently have almost $900,000 sitting in their coffers.
Beyond these core groups, there will be many other third-party players working to influence the outcome of the elections. Labor unions have helped bankroll ABM’s efforts, but they’ve also directly funded DFL candidates and causes. That will undoubtedly still be true in 2012, but fallout from the futile effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — to which many labor unions in Minnesota devoted a significant amount of resources — could mean they’re more financially strapped than in most years.
“We’re still in the evaluation phase about what districts we’ll be putting a focus on,” said Chris Shields, director of communications for the Minnesota AFL/CIO, an umbrella organization for labor unions. “The first important thing is Minnesota isn’t Wisconsin. We have our own set of issues here. I think the partisan environment in Wisconsin was a lot more charged.”
AFSCME Council 5’s PAC reported a healthy balance of nearly $450,000 at the close of the filing period. Its only contributions to legislative candidates so far have consisted of $1,500 to a trio of DFL incumbents. Another significant financial player in legislative contests, Education Minnesota, reported cash on hand of $249,146. The statewide teachers union’s contributions so far in 2012 include $21,850 to legislative candidates (almost exclusively DFLers) and $61,500 to the state DFL Party. Education Minnesota did make small contributions to the GOP legislative caucuses: $1,525 for the House and $500 for the Senate.
While unions have overwhelmingly backed DFLers, there are some exceptions. Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who faces a tough re-election contest against fellow incumbent Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, was the only Republican to receive support from both the Laborers District Council of Minnesota Political Fund and the Building Trades C1 PAC Fund.
“I’m chair of the Capital Investment Committee,” Howes pointed out. “That usually means labor will give you some money because they want you to pay attention. They can’t buy your vote, but they at least want to get your attention.”
Minnesota’s Indian tribes have been spreading more political contributions to Republicans since they took over control of the Legislature in 2010. In 2011, for instance, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which operates casinos in Mille Lacs and Hinckley, contributed $38,500 to the GOP House and Senate caucuses, while their DFL counterparts received just $27,000. That trend seems to be dissipating this year. Overall the nine tribe-backed PACs have contributed at least $138,000 to candidates and causes in 2012, according to campaign finance reports. (The White Earth PAC’s report was not yet available.) Roughly two-thirds of that money went to DFLers. The DFL House caucus received $34,250 in tribal contributions, while its Senate counterpart took in $30,250. House Republicans shared in the largesse, receiving checks totaling $21,000 from four separate PACs. But the Senate GOP didn’t receive a dime in tribal contributions.
John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, points out that Senjem was the lead author of legislation that would have allowed slot machines at the state’s horseracing tracks — a proposal vigorously opposed by tribal interests at the Capitol.
“We’ve always supported people who support us; it’s as simple as that,” McCarthy said. “We’re no different from anybody else. The tribes support the people who support them.” (Some individual members of the Senate GOP caucus, including Michelle Benson of Ham Lake, and Dan Hall of Burnsville, did receive tribal PAC contributions.)
Senjem said he wasn’t aware of the conspicuous lack of financial support for his caucus. “I’m not aware of either why or why not,” Senjem said. “That’s their decision. I wouldn’t want to question it.”