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Pro-GOP business groups proliferate — but keep mum about big-picture coordination

Charley Shaw and Briana Bierschbach//September 28, 2012//

Pro-GOP business groups proliferate — but keep mum about big-picture coordination

Charley Shaw and Briana Bierschbach//September 28, 2012//

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No fewer than half a dozen major players have emerged among the ranks of pro-Republican business PACs in this election cycle. But while their 42-day pre-general election campaign finance reports are now available for all to see, they continue to play it close with respect to their big-picture plans and the extent of their collaboration in drawing a campaign master strategy.

The reports released Wednesday morning show six big players actively raising and spending money to preserve the GOP’s control of the state Legislature. Their roster includes the traditional bastions of the state business lobby: the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (and its Pro Jobs Majority political fund), the Minnesota Business Partnership (MBP) and the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses (CMB). These mainline groups are joined by the longtime political fund Freedom Club State PAC and a newer player, Minnesota’s Future, which came onto the scene during the 2010 gubernatorial fight.

A seventh pro-business organization, MN Forward, has been entirely inactive this year but nonetheless holds $120,000 in cash on hand.

All told, the groups entered the year with over $700,000 in the bank, and they have raised over $1.5 million so far in 2012. Together they have roughly $1.4 million left on hand to spend. That cash figure is up $148,000 since late July, according to the 42-day pre-general election reports that dropped this week. In addition, these fundraising figures do not paint the whole picture. Groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity are known to be spending money on behalf of conservatives in the state, but because they operate as nonprofit issue advocacy groups, they don’t have to disclose their spending.

The business PACs’ cash on hand represents a roughly $300,000 edge over the $1.1 million remaining in the coffers of the three most prominent independent spending groups on the left — WIN Minnesota, the 2012 Fund and Alliance for a Better Minnesota — which have raised a combined $1.95 million this year but have spent nearly half that sum.

What the reports fail to illuminate, however, is the extent to which the business PACs are acting in concert when it comes to strategy and use of resources. Against the backdrop of a financially inert state Republican Party and a well-heeled opposition fueled by money from labor unions and wealthy individuals, business PACs figure to need a lot of bang for their buck to fight a competitive media battle against Democrats. And that augurs for a coordinated plan among the major players.

Charlie Weaver, the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, refuses to comment on the details of the business PACs’ joint activities, but he told Capitol Report they are actively working together.

“Different groups have different strengths, different resources,” Weaver said, “and we’re bringing them all to the table.”

Different strokes for Chamber, MBP

The Business Partnership and the Chamber have taken different approaches to the campaign thus far, as the campaign finance reports indicate.

The Chamber’s Leadership Fund PAC, which it uses to contribute to candidates and legislative caucuses, has been quiet so far. Of the $44,667 in cash contributions it’s made this year, all have been to the Republican House and Senate legislative caucuses, and all but $100 of that came in the first half of the year. The Leadership Fund had $83,000 in cash on hand in its pre-general election report.

The Business Partnership PAC has been more active, making contributions of either $250 or $500 to 31 GOP legislative campaigns. The Partnership has spent to protect incumbent Republicans in swing districts and to boost GOP challengers in competitive districts held by DFLers. In addition to those outlays, the fund has donated $25,050 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and $15,000 to the Republican Senate Victory Fund.

Some observers say they see more differences in priorities and tactics arising between the Chamber and the MBP, two organizations that have largely worked along simpatico lines through the years. But this year the Chamber has so far refrained from passing along any dollars to the two groups’ longtime collaborative political fund, the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses (CMB) PAC. In the meantime, the Business Partnership has given $100,000 to the Coalition. That’s a striking departure from the 2010 election cycle, when the Chamber had already given CMB $150,000 by the middle of September.

Their absence this year is surprising to some money watchers, particularly since Chamber President David Olson is CMB’s treasurer, and it has led to speculation that MBP and the Chamber are at odds over campaign strategy. But Laura Bordelon, the Chamber’s senior vice president for advocacy, said the Chamber remains a committed member of CMB.

“The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses PAC is a longstanding funding mechanism for us,” Bordelon said. “We will continue to work through the CMB PAC as we have in the past. You won’t see changes there. We just continue to be in fundraising mode.” She declined to say how much the Chamber would contribute to CMB this year, or when.

CMB was a major spender in the 2010 legislative races, and it’s already been active this cycle. Its apparent focus this time around is protecting first-term Republican incumbents. The only non-freshman Republican the group spent money on through September 18 was Terry Jacobson, a challenger running for an open seat in the Bloomington/Edina area against former DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal.

Post-Citizens United, the Chamber set up Pro Jobs Majority late in the 2010 campaign, and it played a minor role by raising and spending roughly $20,000. Pro Jobs Majority started 2012 with $130,700 in the bank and has raised a little more than that amount as of September 18. Major donors have been David Frauenshuh ($25,000) and Hubbard Broadcasting ($50,000). It’s spent $164,000 and had $98,600 in cash-on-hand in its 42-day pre-general report.

Freedom Club still active

Despite tensions between longtime Republican political player the Freedom Club and some legislators, particularly House majority leadership, at the start of the campaign season, the political fund is still proving to be a major player among third party spenders in this cycle.

According to the newest batch of campaign finance reports, the PAC has pulled in about $441,000 this year and has spent more than $380,000 on election work. The Freedom Club has received some big contributions since the pre-primary reporting deadline in July, including $52,000 from Crown Holdings CEO George Anderson, $100,000 from William Austin of Starkey Hearing Foundation, $50,000 from Michael Fry of EBF & Associates, and a few other $2,000 donations from Minnesota businessmen and women. In September it spent $5,000 on consulting and about $17,550 on polling.

The Freedom Club’s ability to pull in cash is not surprising. The PAC, launched by a group of conservative CEOs in the mid-1990s, has long been one of the biggest contributors to Republican legislators. Primera Technology CEO Bob Cummins, who founded Freedom Club, is a major player in his own right, donating millions of his personal wealth to Minnesota Republican candidates and causes over the past decade.

At the start of the 2011 session, the group’s goal seemed to have been realized. The Republican legislators they had spent years backing had finally taken control of both chambers. But a June article in the Star Tribune suggested that Cummins was not satisfied with GOP legislators’ performance in power, especially their failure to pass a Freedom Club-backed right-to-work constitutional amendment. A source close to Cummins told the paper that the businessman planned to take a “time out” from backing the legislative caucuses this year.

But Freedom Club hasn’t followed Cummins’ lead with respect to cutting itself off from the GOP legislative caucuses. The group received more than $64,000 worth of polling information as in-kind polling from the Senate Victory Fund, and it has donated to the campaigns of numerous GOP legislators in both chambers, much as it has done in the past. But the group has yet to donate to the House Republican Campaign Committee in 2012.

Freedom Club, widely deemed the most conservative of the major business-funded PACs, also came in direct conflict with other business groups during primary season. In the Senate District 33, the group reported spending roughly $55,000 on mailings, web ads and billboards trying to defeat Rep. Connie Doepke, R-Mound, who served two terms in the House before mounting a campaign for the Senate seat of the retiring Gen Olson. Roughly $35,000 of that money was spent attacking Doepke, while just over $20,000 was spent backing the eventual primary winner, Mound City Council member and GOP endorsee Dave Osmek.

Doepke, for her part, received significant financial backing from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Pro Jobs Majority PAC, which spent $23,000 supporting her candidacy. The Twin West Chambers of Commerce PAC spent $4,000 backing Doepke’s campaign.

Prompted in part by Freedom Club’s spending in SD 33, some campaign watchers believe the Freedom Club will focus its efforts on both preserving the GOP majority in the Senate and ensuring that the caucus moves even more pronouncedly to the right.

In looking ahead to the rest of the campaign season, the Freedom Club still has $381,080 in the bank.

Minnesota’s Future: Calm before the spending?

The biggest mystery among GOP third-party groups this cycle is Minnesota’s Future. The political fund was formed during the 2010 election by now-Republic National Committee chief of staff Jeff Larson. During that cycle, Minnesota’s Future was almost entirely funded by the Republican Governors Association as a vehicle to attack then-DFL candidate Mark Dayton. But this year the group’s strategy has appeared to shift as it looks to be a player in dozens of legislative races.

As of the pre-primary reporting period, Minnesota’s Future had pulled in most of its donations from big, Minnesota-based corporations — Hubbard Broadcasting, Davisco Foods, Frauenshuh Companies, and Micro Control, among others. The group also received $10,000 from both GOP caucuses for polling data, and spent money supporting House GOP candidates Cindy Pugh and Travis Reimche, who both faced primaries. Its money haul is impressive: Minnesota’s Future has about $430,000 in the bank ahead of the November 6 election.

But the group has shown little activity since then, pulling in no donations since the primary election and only making minor expenditures on meetings and legal fees.

Calls to various operatives at public relations firm Weber Johnson, which is running the political fund, went unreturned. But one of the firm’s operatives, Chris Tiedeman, previously told Capitol Report that 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 said at the time that political observers shouldn’t expect to see spending from the group until the late summer or early fall.

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