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When it comes to spending by Minnesota’s political parties, the state DFL has emerged as the No. 1 player in the 2012 battle for control of Legislature.

Democrats dominate in spending by party units

The state GOP, chaired by Pat Shortridge, left, has pulled in $1.2 million in donations and spent more than $2 million on races, in the process getting outpaced almost three-to-one by the DFL Party, chaired by Ken Martin, right. (Staff photos: Briana Bierschbach, Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

When it comes to spending by Minnesota’s political parties, the state DFL has emerged as the No. 1 player in the 2012 battle for control of Legislature.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota has raised more than $8 million and spent about $7 million on legislative races as of October 22, according to the final campaign finance reports released prior to Election Day. The party also had about $1.1 million in the bank left to spend. Much of that cash has been passed back and forth between the state DFL and the two Democratic caucuses in the Legislature, slightly complicating the total fundraising and spending picture. But even with transfers between the three groups taken out, DFL party units together have spent a total of about $5.76 million on races so far this year.
That’s about $1 million more than the combined total of the three main party entities on the Republican side. Together, the Republican Party of Minnesota (RPM) and the two GOP legislative caucuses have spent a total of about $4.7 million on legislative races, not including transfers from the caucuses to the RPM for discounts on bulk candidate mailers. (The DFL uses the same strategy.)

Unsurprisingly, the RPM had paltry fundraising totals compared to the state DFL, after a tumultuous 12 months in which former chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned and more than $2 million in debts were revealed. The state GOP has pulled in $1.2 million in donations and spent more than $2 million on races, in the process getting outpaced by the DFL Party almost three-to-one. The RPM had just more than $3,000 in the bank by the reporting deadline. The massive discrepancy between the two state parties’ financial resources has forced other, outside spending groups to step up to try and fill the void.  (See companion story)

Here’s a breakdown of the fundraising done by the individual legislative caucuses this year:
• The House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) raised $1.7 million and spent $2.2 million, including $385,000 passed on to the state party for mailings. It finished the period with nearly $400,000 still in the bank.

• The Senate GOP caucus raised less than $900,000 and spent $1.3 million, funneling roughly $115,000 to the state party for mailings.  It had just over $300,000 cash on hand at the close of the filing period.
• The DFL House caucus raised about $2.9 million and spent more than $2.3 million, with $1.5 million going to the state party for mailings. It finished the filing period with more than $900,000 in the bank.

• The DFL Senate Caucus took in $2.8 million and spent slightly more than that amount, with $2.2 million going to the DFL party. It closed the filing period with just over $200,000 cash on hand.

Suburban swing districts

Many of the races that attracted massive amounts of cash from the state parties and caucuses aren’t surprising. The ferocious contest in Senate District 49 between GOP state Rep. Keith Downey and Target Corp. attorney Melisa Franzen is widely expected to be the most expensive contest in the state when all the dust has settled. The DFL poured $142,000 into the district, which includes Edina and part of Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, the highest total of any race in the state. That’s more than three times as much as Republican party units put into the contest.

Other suburban swing districts have also seen large infusions of cash from the caucuses and state parties. In House District 39B, for instance, where freshman GOP Rep. Kathy Lohmer is looking to fend off DFL challenger Tom DeGree, the two parties have each spent significant sums. The Democrats put nearly $50,000 into swaying voters, while the GOP groups spent just over $40,000. The state Republican Party put nearly $30,000 into television spots attacking DeGree.

District 5 — where six incumbents are pitted against each other in three races — was another anticipated center of spending activity. In House District 5A, where Capital Investment Committee Chair Larry Howes faces two-term DFL Rep. John Persell, Republicans appear to be more financially committed to keeping the seat. The state party and caucuses have plowed just over $100,000 into the contest while their DFL counterparts spent just over $70,000.

Hann in trouble?

A number of districts that weren’t initially considered competitive have attracted significant amounts of money. That likely suggests that internal polling indicates the races are closer than originally anticipated.

Perhaps most notably, Democrats have recently invested heavily in the Senate District 48 race between Health and Human Services chairman and Senate GOP elections chief David Hann and DFL newcomer Laurie McKendry. The DFL has spent $51,000 against Hann – with more than $25,000 of that total coming since October 19 – and $64,000 on behalf of McKendry. That puts the district in the top 10 list of DFL targets despite the GOP +6 tilt of the Eden Prairie/Minnetonka-area seat. Operatives from both sides of the aisle have said new polling numbers show the race within 1 or 2 points, and Hann has recently come under fire for his involvement in exposing last year’s Senate sex scandal and for earning a license to sell health insurance while he chairs the powerful HHS Committee.

The party has also spent more than $124,000 in an effort to oust first-term Red Wing Republican Sen. John Howe, who is being challenged by DFL candidate Matt Schmit. The spending is surprising, as partisan indices rate Senate District 21 as comfortably Republican at GOP +5 or +6.

Another contest that surprisingly attracted significant amounts of cash is House District 56B, which includes Lakeville. The area is currently represented by GOP Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, but she opted to seek reelection in a neighboring district, leaving an open seat. The district has a pronounced GOP tilt, but former DFL Rep. Will Morgan apparently has Republicans worried that he could knock off GOP nominee Roz Peterson, whose resume includes serving as chair of the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce. The state DFL has spent nearly $37,000 on the contest, while the state GOP put in roughly $35,000.

Then there’s what appears to be token spending in contests that might not truly be competitive. The DFL House caucus, for instance, threw $1,000 at newspaper ads targeting freshman GOP Rep. Mary Franson, who’s frequently made headlines for controversial remarks during her two years at the Capitol. The House GOP caucus also spent just over $3,000 on polling in the district back in June, suggesting that there has been some anxiety about her prospects for reelection. But the district favors Republicans by double digits and it’s unlikely that Franson is any serious trouble, since no significant sums have been directed toward the race in recent weeks.

DFL caucuses (mostly) leave spending to party

One of the most striking things about the two campaign finance reports released by the House and Senate Democratic caucuses was how little of their own money they opted to spend directly on races.

Nearly all of the money taken in by both caucuses was transferred over to the state DFL, which then divvied up the cash on some of the closest elections across the state. The Senate DFL did almost no spending on individual races, instead spending on fundraising expenses, travel, staff, research and polling. Outside of the $2.2 million transferred to the state DFL Party, one of the Senate DFL’s biggest expenses was about $125,000 in telemarketing services from a company out of St. Cloud, Meyer Teleservices. The Senate DFL also spent $117,000 on polling with Projects Lakes and Plains out of St. Paul, including $30,000 on consulting and $20,000 on research.

House Democrats deviated slightly from that format, choosing to invest some of their cash directly into radio and newspaper ad buys in outstate districts where that strategy tends to pays dividends. For instance, the House DFL spent nearly $67,000 out of its fund on radio ads for DFL candidate Shannon Savick in Albert Lea, while also spending about $5,000 in newspaper ads against the area’s Republican incumbent, Rich Murray.

They followed a similar pattern in the House District 5A and 5B races, the House District 17B race between DFLer Mary Sawatzky and freshman GOP Rep. Bruce Vogel, and the House District 2A race between Democrat Roger Erickson and first-term Republican Rep. David Hancock. The caucus also spent heavily on radio on behalf of DFL candidates Joe Radinovich (10B), Jay McNamar (12A), Ben Lien (4) and Tim Faust (11B) in northern Minnesota.

Republicans dependent on third-party groups

The state Republican Party made almost no independent expenditures to bolster Senate candidates. Of the roughly $575,000 the party spent to directly influence contests, less than $7,000 was spent on Senate races — and nearly half of that money went to support Downey’s campaign. What’s more, the GOP appears to be pretty much tapped out financially. The financially beleaguered party already has more than $1 million in unpaid bills documented in its campaign finance filing, including nearly $600,000 in legal bills stemming from the 2010 gubernatorial recount.

That means GOP candidates – particularly on the Senate side — will be highly dependent on support from independent expenditure groups to bolster their electoral prospects. Most notably, the two most active business PACs spending on behalf of Republicans, the Freedom Club State PAC and Minnesota’s Future, have been spending heavily, with a disproportionate emphasis on Senate races.

The Senate Republican caucus is relying heavily on TV and radio buys in the final weeks of the campaign. Since the beginning of October, it’s spent roughly $330,000 on media buys – or more than half of the group’s total expenditures.

About Paul Demko and Briana Bierschbach

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