Republican Senate candidate Brandon Anderson needed $800, and quick, in order to qualify for the public subsidy for legislative candidates. So as he lay in bed one night thinking about his predicament, Anderson, who is trying to unseat DFL Sen. David Tomassoni in SD 6, came up with a plan to help his own campaign and those of his fellow Republican candidates. The plan worked, and other candidates praised the first-time candidate for his creativity, but now questions are being raised on whether Anderson’s scheme was too clever by half.
The idea, first unveiled in a thread of emails obtained by Checks and Balances, was that Republicans would chip in with small donations to Anderson’s campaign fund, at which point Anderson would reciprocate with a $50 donation back to that candidate’s campaign.
“Send me $50 and I’ll send you $50,” Anderson wrote. “Simple. I am prepared to do such; I have the personal funds available.”
According to the email, sent July 17, Anderson was running out of time before the July 24 midnight deadline to obtain a public subsidy for his campaign, which requires qualifying candidates to raise $3,000 on their own in donations of $50 or less.
The original missive went out to 54 Republicans, including a number of sitting legislators. The next day, Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who is now running for the District 12 Senate seat, replied that he would be happy to take part, and congratulated Anderson for his ingenuity.
“Creative!” Westrom wrote. “I’ve just asked our bookkeeper to mail you today a $50 check.”
Westrom included the address for his campaign office, and forwarded the email on to a few other candidates, apparently hoping to expand the circle of potential donation-traders. On July 19, District 39 Senate candidate Eric Langness replied that he, too, wanted to take part.
“I’m in a similar position as Senator [Ray] Vandeveer dropped out on the last day and I had not been fund-raising,” Langness wrote. “I will mail you off a $50 check today! I love your creativity to solving this problem.”
Indeed, most everyone agrees that Anderson’s solution is a novel one. That includes Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, who said he was unaware of any previous arrangement like this, and does not have a ready answer as to how the state campaign finance laws apply to this situation. Goldsmith said the board staff was conducting an “informal review” of what happened.
“Typically, if we hear things in the media, we don’t act on them,” Goldsmith said. “But in this case I have had questions on it by others than just the media.”
At least one of those questions came from a Republican legislator who unwittingly found himself involved in Anderson’s trade-off. The legislator sent Anderson a $50 donation, but did not ask for him to send anything back. The lawmaker was surprised to see a $50 campaign donation from Anderson, and immediately called Goldsmith, who explained that the donation trading fell into a legal “gray area.” Not needing the donation to qualify for the public subsidy, and not wanting to become embroiled in any kind of potential legal matter, the lawmaker returned Anderson’s $50 check.
“I did talk to [Anderson] about it,” the legislator said, “and he said, ‘Hey it’s completely legal.’ And it very well may be completely legal, but I just want to be above reproach — the public perception is very important.”
The actual legality will likely be sorted out by August 7, the next time the Campaign Finance board meets in executive session. Goldsmith said if the plan is proved to be above board by the current laws, he would probably share what he finds with the Legislature.
“I think we would probably make them aware that this is a way to qualify for public subsidy,” Goldsmith said.
Legislators who qualify for the public subsidy and agree to its terms can receive a $50 refund per contributor from the state, with the purpose of decreasing candidates’ reliance on large contributions and limiting overall campaign spending.
For the moment, Anderson’s plan was a success. He told the Pioneer Press that he had reached the $3,000 threshold, though he would not say how much of it came from other candidates.