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Top GOP donors pitch coordinated campaign in 2014

Briana Bierschbach//September 18, 2013//

Top GOP donors pitch coordinated campaign in 2014

Briana Bierschbach//September 18, 2013//

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Longtime Republican donors Stanley Hubbard and Tom Rosen hope to persuade Republican-aligned groups to focus their fundraising and political activity under the aegis of Norm Coleman’s Minnesota Action Network. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Longtime Republican donors Stanley Hubbard and Tom Rosen hope to persuade Republican-aligned groups to focus their fundraising and political activity under the aegis of Norm Coleman’s Minnesota Action Network. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Hubbard, Rosen lead effort to build counterpart to Democrats’ ABM

Longtime Republican donors Stanley Hubbard and Tom Rosen are mounting a campaign of their own this year. The broadcasting magnate and beef processing CEO are trying to get a vast and complicated web of GOP donors, operatives and activists to march in step when it comes to the 2014 elections.

The businessmen have staged a series of meetings to make their case that business-minded Republicans need to change their approach to elections in the state. Just last fall, Democrats in Minnesota gained control of both chambers in the Legislature, held a U.S. Senate seat by a nearly 2-1 margin, and picked up a congressional seat in northern Minnesota. When the Legislature convened for the 2013 session, rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers united with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to pass some of the first major tax increases in the state in decades, including a top-tier income tax hike and taxes on several business-to-business services.

Hubbard says he’s learned his lesson from the past few election cycles, in which a handful of separate GOP political funds spent millions on elections but operated independently from each other. Their idea is simple: In order to get business-friendly lawmakers back in power, Republican-aligned groups need to focus their fundraising and political activity in one place. They’d like to see the effort consolidated under the aegis of the Minnesota Action Network, a local spinoff of former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman’s American Action Network group.

For its part, the Minnesota Action Network is happy to help in their efforts. “[We] will be pleased to play whatever role that is most effective in promoting” a “pro-business” agenda of “job creation” and “economic growth,” Coleman said in a statement.

“You can’t have all sorts of groups running around doing things. You get nothing accomplished. We should be focused and everybody work together to pull in the same direction,” Hubbard told Capitol Report. “This is not a Democrat thing and this is not a Republican thing, although I suppose it would lean more Republican, but this is people who are pro-sensible business and tax policies to promote jobs. The whole idea we have is: How do we create prosperity for our fellow Minnesotans?”

A page from the DFL playbook 

Democratic groups in Minnesota have been coordinating their campaign efforts for the past two election cycles, and it seems to be working.

Democrats started working together after a late 2009 summit of top DFL political donors. In an effort to end a decades-long DFL dry spell in the governor’s office, Democratic heavyweights like publisher Vance Opperman, Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger and developer Kelly Doran came together to form the political action fund Win Minnesota, a spinoff of an already-established nonprofit.

While the DFL groups have been reluctant to talk about their strategy publicly, the division of labor is clearly spelled out in campaign finance reports. Win Minnesota and a fund named for each election year (i.e. the 2012 Fund or the 2014 Fund) coordinate fundraising efforts and then funnel that cash into Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), a Web-savvy political operation that has become known for its potent and coordinated ad campaigns. The group is widely credited with severely weakening Republican Tom Emmer’s bid for the governor’s office in 2010 by pushing early ads highlighting two decades-old drunken driving arrests.

The coordinated efforts of these groups kept negative attention on Emmer while Democrats squabbled internally over who would be their nominee for the governor’s office that year. Democrat Mark Dayton ultimately won the nomination and the gubernatorial race by about 9,000 votes in a GOP wave year. Last fall, DFL groups coordinated to help win back the Legislature.

Republican business groups tried coordinating their efforts once. In the wake of the January 2010 United States Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which gave corporations the ability to contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns, Republicans in Minnesota aimed to put all business contributions in one place. MN Forward emerged as the business PAC of choice, with initial goals of raising $10 million to spend on the open race for the governor’s office.

But MN Forward’s efforts were hamstrung early in the season after Target Corp. received blowback from gay rights organizations and their allies for supporting MN Forward, which had put out ads promoting GOP gubernatorial candidate Emmer, who was open in his opposition to gay marriage. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel ultimately apologized for a $150,000 donation to the group. In the end, the group spent only $1.7 million on the gubernatorial contest.

During the 2012 election cycle, MN Forward was almost a nonentity, and the Republican Party of Minnesota was working to chisel away at more than $2 million in debt left over from the previous election cycle.

Instead, about a half dozen GOP-aligned third party groups worked to fill the void, including several funds started by the chamber, the Minnesota Business Partnership PAC, Minnesota’s Future and the Freedom Club State PAC. Together those groups spent about $4.5 million on the election, on par with what DFL political funds spent on the race. But while some of their targeted races overlapped, there was little to no coordination between the Republican outfits.

Corralling business groups

Republicans now find themselves in a position similar to that of Democrats in 2009. Republicans cannot take full control of state government next year – the state Senate is controlled by Democrats and not up until the following cycle – but they can gain at least a foothold in a state where they currently have no power. Dayton is seeking a second term, and already there are five Republicans running for the GOP nod to challenge him next fall. And all 134 members of the state House are up for re-election.

In an effort to coordinate efforts, Hubbard and Rosen have each donated at least $50,000 to the Minnesota Action Network, and they’re encouraging others to do the same. By Hubbard’s account, business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership are willing to coordinate, but those groups are staying quiet about their plans for now.

Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, didn’t directly acknowledge any plans to work with Hubbard and Rosen to bolster the Minnesota Action Network’s coffers in 2014. The Minnesota Business Partnership could not be reached for comment.

“We continue to work with the Minnesota Business Partnership and other business organizations to elect pro-business candidates,” Bordelon said. “The governor and Legislature made fundamental changes to the direction of the state last session. We think the public should understand what those changes are and what they mean, and there should be a full public discussion about that.”

Other business groups and donors aren’t quite convinced by the pitch. “I’m quite picky,” said Micro Control CEO and prodigious Republican donor Harold Hamilton, who added that no one has contacted him about coordination. “I’m pretty satisfied with our efforts so far.”

And there’s the Freedom Club, a separate group of politically active business executives that was started in the 1990s by Primera Technology CEO Robert Cummins. The group spent $1.8 million to elect Republican candidates during the 2012 cycle. Brandon Sawalich, current president of the group and a corporate officer at Starkey Hearing Technology, said their membership is at an all-time high, but they have no plans to coordinate with other business groups.

“We have many Twin Cities business leaders within our club who are also active in politics. Some of these members are involved independently in various groups, clubs and other PACS,” Sawalich said. “The Freedom Club does not involve itself in other groups’ strategies.”

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