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One notable exception: Cravaack/Nolan CD 8 race

Top races draw less outside ad cash than expected

The race for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District — between Freshman GOP Congressman Chip Cravaack and former Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan — will be the most expensive race in the state and likely one of the priciest in the nation this cycle. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The influx of cash and advertising campaigns to Minnesota’s top races this year has been far less pronounced than most politics watchers anticipated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 opened the door to unlimited corporate cash in elections, and most assumed that meant every subsequent election would see millions of dollars flowing in and endless opportunities for scorched-earth-style campaigning and attack ads. But by some accounts, more was spent on television advertising in Minnesota in 2008, the last election cycle prior to the CU ruling.

“In 2008 you had the combination of [the presidential race] and the U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, which was the second most expensive race in the country,” said Minnesota ad guru Bill Hillsman, of North Woods Advertising, who is best known for his work on campaigns for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. “This year not much is happening on the presidential level. Obama’s going to win the state, and even the congressional races are mostly quiet. I don’t think [campaign ads are] nearly as pronounced as they were in 2008 or even 2010.”

The one race where Citizens United can be felt this year is in Minnesota’s 8th District. Freshman GOP Congressman Chip Cravaack and like-minded groups are spending millions on ads to defend their hold on the one-time DFL stronghold, while national liberal groups and labor unions are spending just as heavily to win it back. And while the 8th is garnering more attention than it ever has before, Michele Bachmann’s race in the state’s 6th District has attracted a fraction of the advertising attention it earned in 2010.

Here’s a breakdown of how some key Minnesota campaigns and are (or are not) using the airwaves this cycle.

Marriage amendment: The battle over whether the state will define marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the constitution has emerged as the marquee issue of this election in Minnesota, and voters across the state should expect a flood of related ads in the final weeks of the campaign. The campaigns for and against the amendment have raised millions of dollars to support their efforts, and Minnesotans United for all Families, the main anti-amendment organization, used an early discount to book $1.3 million in ads in the final three weeks before Election Day. That’s in addition to other ad buys reflected on the group’s 42-day pre-general campaign finance report, which showed closer to $2 million in airtime already on the books. Campaign spokeswoman Kate Brickman said only that the group plans to spend several million on the air, but it’s worth noting that the group had more than $750,000 in the bank as of the last reporting deadline, and hundreds of thousands of additional dollars have come in since then. Minnesotans United has released four television ads to date, all of them featuring non-gay couples or individuals talking about why they are voting “no.” All four ads stress the central theme of the campaign — limiting the freedom to marry.

The pro-amendment side’s airtime spending is a mystery. The chief group supporting the proposed amendment, Minnesota for Marriage, had not made any ad buys by the last campaign finance reporting deadline, and online records of advertising buys at the state’s four network-affiliated stations are incomplete. Minnesota for Marriage has released three ads, one stressing the importance of family structure, another warning that courts could overturn laws banning gay marriage without the amendment, and a new ad (which has been flagged by Minnesota Public Radio as misleading) warning that gay culture could be taught in schools. Minnesota for Marriage did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Hillsman has little faith in the strategy employed by anti-amendment group. “They’ve done a lousy job of appealing to independent voters,” Hillsman said. As for the pro-amendment side, Hillsman says their strategy has been road-tested in 30 other states where the amendment has passed. “Regardless of what you think of what they’re doing, they’ve proven to be effective,” he said. “And I think it will be effective in Minnesota as well.”

Photo ID: The campaigns for the popular constitutional amendment to require photo identification in order to vote have been mostly quiet until very recently, when the anti-amendment group Our Vote Our Future launched an aggressive television campaign designed to close a big gap in the polls. The group has launched four ads in recent weeks, and almost all feature an elderly woman talking about why the amendment could be harmful to certain groups of voters. Former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe is the star of one of the ads. The pro-amendment campaign, ProtectMyVote, has one ad on the air featuring World War II veteran Robert McWhite. The anti-amendment group has seemed to counter that ad, releasing a new ad on Tuesday featuring a young, Iraq War veteran who says the amendment would not recognize military identification for voting purposes.

8th Congressional District: The race for northeastern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District will be the most expensive race in the state and likely one of the priciest in the nation this cycle. That’s a change for voters in the area, which had reliably opted for Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar for decades. Oberstar was booted suddenly in 2010 by insurgent candidate Cravaack, and new district lines and shifting demographics have turned what was once a DFL stronghold into a bona fide swing race this year. As of this week, more than $6 million in advertising buys had been purchased or planned in the district from outside groups, and those dollars are being spent overwhelmingly on ads attacking Cravaack or his DFL challenger, former Congressman Rick Nolan. More than $1 million of that spending came in last week alone, according to the campaign finance site Open Secrets.

Cravaack is getting help in his quest to hang on to the seat from national GOP groups, including the American Action Network, run by former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, which has pledged to spend about $1.7 million on the race. Nolan, for his part, is getting help from national labor unions and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Cravaack has released four TV spots: two highlighting his relationship with his father, one stressing his support for mining, which liberal Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown says could be “brutal” to Nolan’s support on the traditionally DFL Iron Range, and most recently a testament to his own union roots. (Cravaack was a member of the Airline Pilots Association.) Cravaack had no ad buys reflected on his most recent filing with the Federal Elections Commission. But Nolan has taken a more aggressive stand in his advertisements, attacking Cravaack in his latest ad for moving to New Hampshire this year after his wife took a new job.

6th Congressional District: Michele Bachmann’s central Minnesota congressional district was a hotbed of campaign activity in 2010, when deputy DFL state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tarryl Clark tried to take out the incumbent much loathed by the left. Millions of dollars flowed into Clark’s coffers based on her status as the Democrat challenging Bachmann, and independent advertising buys were abundant in the area. In this year’s race between Bachmann and hotelier Jim Graves, that hasn’t been the case. To date, less than $100,000 has been spent on the race by outside groups.

But the scant attention from national spenders doesn’t mean the race isn’t heated back home. Bachmann has already spent north of $1 million on ads attacking Graves. Most of the ads compare him to liberals in Washington like President Barack Obama and former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Likewise, Graves has spent more than $650,000 on ads, including one that accused Bachmann of failing to reach out to constituents working at a Sartell paper mill after it burned down earlier this year. A recent KSTP/Survey USA poll showed Bachmann with a comfortable 9-point lead, but the congresswoman is missing an important buffer this cycle without an Independence Party candidate on the ballot. In the last two elections, IP candidates have garnered more than 5 percent of the vote.

2nd Congressional District: Voters in Minnesota’s 2nd District have witnessed fairly uneventful contests since incumbent GOP Rep. John Kline took office a decade ago. But this cycle, with slightly redrawn lines and a highly touted DFL candidate, voters are seeing some substantial ad buys in the south suburban seat. Former state Rep. Mike Obermueller has produced two television ads and spent more than $300,000 to air them so far. Kline is likewise spending a large amount of cash to air one ad that features him standing inside the Metrodome, using ticket prices to illustrate the federal debt. Kline has made several large ad buys in metro-area television stations, including more than $300,000 with WCCO alone.

1st Congressional District: Things are mostly quiet on the southern Minnesota front. In the face of a Republican challenge from former state Rep. Allen Quist, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has actually canceled plans to spend $260,000 for two ads in the 1st District. With just two weeks to go, the group feels confident that incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Walz will win reelection.

U.S. Senate Race: In 2008, the race between then-Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken was one of the most expensive races in the country. This year, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills had $68,000 in the bank as of the end of September, and no television spots in sight. Popular DFL incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has $4.9 million in the bank, has several ads out so far stressing her work on veterans’ issues, constituent service and on saving car dealerships from closure in Minnesota.

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