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In recent election cycles, Alliance for a Better Minnesota has galvanized support for DFL candidates and causes. The Minnesota Jobs Coalition is hoping to play a similar role on behalf of Republicans.

MN Jobs Coalition seeks to bolster GOP prospects in 2014

Ben Golnik

At the end of April, Gov. Mark Daytontraveled to Shakopee to press his legislative agenda. During the town hall meeting he stated that legislators are “terribly underpaid.” That statement was greeted by laughter from the audience. At least one person shouted a comment about legislators only working part-time.

Dayton bristled at the response. “Let me just finish,” he said to the audience. “I’ve been all over the state and I’ve never had people behave this rudely.”

The media presence at the event was paltry and Dayton’s comments initially received little attention. But Tom Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a GOP-aligned independent expenditure group that was founded earlier this year, was on hand to capture the remarks on video.

The group posted the video online and disseminated it to reporters. The following day Dayton was asked about the comments at a press conference and doubled down on his characterization, describing the audience as engaging in “very juvenile kind of behavior.” The dust-up was ultimately covered by the Star Tribune, City Pages, Minnesota Public Radio and all four local broadcast television stations.

Ben Golnik, the chair and founder of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, argues that the moment would have been ignored if they had not brought attention to it. “That would have never been a story had we not been there,” Golnik said.

Erickson suggests that the incident was important because it is emblematic of concerns about Dayton’s temperament. “Minnesotans want a governor who’s willing to find some common ground,” he said. “As you saw this last legislative session, Mark Dayton didn’t even play well with Democrats.”

The dissemination of the Shakopee comments was just one example of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition’s efforts to provide a critical response to the actions of Dayton and the DFL legislative majorities during the recently concluded session. When Dayton released his initial budget, which included a proposed expansion of the sales tax to include business-to-business services, the conservative political advocacy group circulated critical comments from business owners and editorial boards across the state. In March, the group ran radio ads seeking to pressure five DFL legislators, including freshman Reps. Joe Radinovich, of Crosby, and Mary Sawatzky, of Willmar, not to support any sales tax expansion. In May, the coalition filed a complaint with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure board alleging that Dayton violated campaign finance rules by failing to adequately compensate the state for subsidized travel to political events.

The coalition is intended as a counterpoint to Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), a pro-DFL independent expenditure group that has spent nearly $10 million supporting DFL candidates and causes in the last two elections. ABM has been bankrolled by multiple six-figure contributions from Rockefeller-heiress Alida Messinger (who is also Dayton’s ex-wife) and labor unions.

During the 2010 cycle, in particular, the independent expenditure group proved pivotal in Dayton’s successful bid to break a two-decade losing streak for Democrats in gubernatorial contests. Early in the election cycle, ABM went up on the airwaves with a hard-hitting ad criticizing GOP nominee Tom Emmer’s arrests for drunk driving. Many political observers credited the spot with doing damage that Emmer’s campaign never fully recovered from.

In the space where ABM operated, “We saw a void or a vacuum on the GOP side,” said Golnik. “So we just put our flag in the ground and decided to move forward.”

But the conservative advocacy group has a long way to go before it can boast of that type of influence. The organization will not file its initial fundraising report until the end of the year. Golnik said that their fundraising haul so far has reached “six figures,” but declined to offer specifics.

“I think we’ve built ourselves up as a credible entity on our side,” Golnik said. “A lot of this depends upon what do we do from here. Our fundraising has picked up over the last six to eight weeks significantly.… The pitch I make to donors is, there’s nobody else out there doing what we’re doing.”

The difficulty going forward will be convincing conservative donors that they should coalesce around the Minnesota Jobs Coalition. The GOP-aligned independent expenditure field already includes the Freedom Club State PAC, Minnesota’s Future, Pro Jobs Majority, Minnesota Business Partnership PAC, Coalition of Minnesota Businesses PAC, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership Fund, the Minnesota Action Network and Americans for Prosperity Minnesota.

“The reality is, there’s only space for one group to do this work effectively,” said Ken Martin, chair of the state DFL party, who set up the funding framework for ABM in 2009. “When you have too many groups on the right, all with different agendas, trying to be message deliverers, it ends up being a very diffuse message. Ben’s on the right track, but until he gets people to coalesce around his organization, and some of these groups to fold into his operation, his effort’s going to be neutered going forward.”

Golnik doesn’t deny that Republican-aligned independent expenditure groups have sometimes struggled to sing from the same hymnal.  But he argues that the actions of DFLers at the Capitol – particularly $2 billion in increased taxes — should provide a rallying point for GOP-aligned groups.“For the Republicans, we do need to make sure we’re smart with our finite amount of dollars that are out there,” Golnik said. “I think there’s a  lot of material that they’ve provided.”

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