First-quarter fundraising numbers released this week show DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan overtaking Republican challenger Stewart Mills in contributions for the first time in two quarters as the race in Minnesota’s competitive 8th Congressional District continues on the winding road toward Election Day.
Nolan, who served previously in Congress from 1975-81 and beat incumbent Republican Chip Cravaack in 2012, raised $249,083. That’s nearly $50,000 more than the $202,440 taken in by Mills, whose family owns the Fleet Farm chain of stores. At the end of March, Nolan had $478,215 in the bank compared to Mills’ $355,738.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, called the fundraising totals in the race “average” compared to other contests he’s watching. “There are candidates who did better, there are candidates who did worse,” he said.
Prognosticators have labeled the race highly competitive in a district that was once a DFL stronghold, but flipped Republican in 2010 and back again in 2012. CD 8 makes up much of Minnesota northeast of the metro area. Eric Ostermeier, a political researcher from the University of Minnesota, said the race is too close to call right now.
“Maybe it’s a toss-up,” Kondik said. “I would say the race is still sort of in the opening stages,” he added. “I think Nolan is something of a favorite just given the district, which leans ever so slightly Democratic, and incumbency is also helpful just generically.”
Mills campaign points to PAC money
Mike Lukach, Mills’ campaign manager, said there’s a different story hidden deeper in the numbers. He pointed out that Mills actually raised nearly $40,000 more from individual contributors than Nolan, who made up the difference through political committee donations.
Nolan’s total for the quarter breaks down to $122,859 in individual contributions and $126,223 from committees. Mills raised $161,940 in individual contributions and $40,500 from committees in the same period.
“Stewart is getting support from individuals, and Nolan is getting support from Washington, D.C.,” Lukach said.
Nolan campaign manager Kendal Killian said the campaign has raised money from all sources. “Stewart Mills is going to have one major donor,” Killian shot back, “which will be himself.”
The wealthy executive with Mills Fleet Farm has between $46 million and $150 million in assets, according to his personal financial reports. He has said some of that money could fund his campaign.
Kondik said the spread of contributions likely doesn’t resonate with voters.
“The campaigns will talk about that stuff, but does anybody actually care?” he said with a laugh, calling those distinctions “the definition of inside baseball in politics.”
Ostermeier noted that Nolan has now raised four times as much as he had at the same point in the last cycle, during his bid to oust Cravaack. “This time around, as far as Nolan’s finances go, he’s doing as well as can be expected,” Ostermeier said.
“I certainly wouldn’t think as Nolan as an ace fundraiser, so maybe the PAC contributions sort of propped him up a little bit,” Kondik said. “That may be one take-away from it.”
So far heading into the 2014 midterms, Nolan has raised a total of $780,418 to Mills’ $650,830. Other committees have contributed a total of $56,500 to Mills, compared to Nolan’s $409,671.
A wide swath of union PACs, among other groups, have contributed significant funds to Nolan’s effort. Mills’ more modest PAC haul came mainly from conservative groups tasked with retaining the GOP’s U.S. House majority.
“I think it’s more natural… to get more PAC money at this stage,” Ostermeier said. “I think more PAC money could find its way into Mills’ coffers if things seem to be close in the waning few months of the campaign.”
Killian said Nolan expects to be outspent in the end. Not accounted for from either side is the spending by outside groups already wading into the race. In the Cravaack-Nolan race in 2012, outside groups spent $9.3 million compared to the candidates’ $3.5 million.
So far this quarter, Nolan has spent $102,557, or about $60,000 less than Mills’ $162,245.
Both sides tout field work
On the ground, both campaigns have said their candidates are drumming up support for the midterm election, which Democrats worry could be difficult for them.
Republican activists in CD 8 say Mills is whipping up enthusiasm. His family’s deep roots in the community and his involvement in Fleet Farm have helped drive up his name recognition.
“Mills is a name that the eighth District knows,” said Ronald Britton, treasurer of the CD 8 GOP. “They recognize the name, and [Fleet Farm has] been a respected institution for as long as I can remember.”
Lukach hit Nolan on his support for the Affordable Care Act, how the sitting congressman “waffled” on his support for mining, and for backing gun control efforts.
“People respect [Mills] as a Second Amendment supporter, and of course he also owns one of the guns that are sold at Mills, and also they have indoor shooting ranges that are probably the best in quite a few states,” Britton said. “A lot of people know about it, and that also gives him a lot more enthusiasm behind his candidacy.”
Killian acknowledged that midterm elections are tough for Democrats, making turnout considerations a pivotal part of the race. “We have to take a hard look at what worked in 2012 and what didn’t in 2010,” he said, adding that the campaign would have to be focused on local issues and not the national political climate.
Nolan will highlight the efforts by national Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage as well as other policy initiatives that affect middle class Minnesotans, Killian said, while casting Mills as a wealthy businessman only concerned for the rich.
“Generally people in Minnesota think things are going in the right direction,” he said, “so the thing we need to do is localize the campaign and talk about our success in Minnesota.”
Cathy Daniels, treasurer of the CD 8 DFL, said she thinks the prevailing winds are turning for Democrats. “I think it’s better than it has been for a long time, with what’s been happening with health care, the mining situation, the roads, the airport,” Daniels said. “Money’s coming into the area and people are seeing that — there’s more jobs.”
Daniels also questioned credibility of Mills. “He reminds us of another Jesse Ventura,” she said. “With his headbands and his ponytails and all that.
“We certainly don’t need another Jesse Ventura, I’ll tell you that.”
When asked about those characterizations, Lukach responded: “When
people meet Stewart Mills… they will know how serious a candidate he is.”
One controversy that has been dogging Nolan is an upcoming fundraiser with 60s-era folk singer Peter Yarrow, who pled guilty in 1970 to molesting a 14-year-old girl. The National Republican Congressional Committee has called on Nolan to cancel the event.
“That’s just a distraction,” Killian said. “They’re going to have to drum up any distraction that they can find.”
Lukach declined to comment on the controversy.
Beyond the fundraising totals, the human elements of the respective campaigns are critical, Ostermeier said.
“There will be debates, and who knows which candidate says the wrong thing?” he said. “There’s 100 variables involved.”