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Campaign money: Indie spenders watch, wait

Charlie Weaver, the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, says he can imagine a more expansive spending window for all kinds of political funds this year, as the new absentee voting option has created what is essentially a six-week Election Day. (File photo)

Charlie Weaver, the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, says he can imagine a more expansive spending window for all kinds of political funds this year, as the new absentee voting option has created what is essentially a six-week Election Day. (File photo)

Fewer than five months remain before the 2014 general election, and Minnesota’s two major political parties have begun to act like it. In the span of just a few hours on Thursday, both the DFL Party and Republican Party of Minnesota announced plans for regional campaign offices throughout the state.

The DFL Party will run some 18 full-time offices around Minnesota, according to its press release, and will hold opening events in Minneapolis, Hopkins and Eagan in the coming days.

At a press conference in the State Office Building, Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey stood next to a map dotted with the locations of current or prospective GOP branch offices. Downey said 10 such operations were already up and running, and another five would be opening soon. Five additional spots are in the planning stages, meaning the party could eventually have the lights on in 20 offices. Downey said the move marks the debut of a new tactic for the party.

“This is a substantial upgrade in what the state party is helping provide for our candidates,” Downey said.

While the office openings look equal on paper, the DFL Party holds a substantial advantage over its GOP counterparts in financial terms, according to campaign finance documents released in the past week. The DFL Party took in more than $1 million from January 1 through May 31 of this year, more than three times the amount donated to the state Republican Party.  The GOP’s state account brings just over $30,000 in cash on hand into June; the DFL account holds more than 10 times that amount.

As has been the case for the last several election cycles, both parties will find themselves competing for elbow room with a variety of outside spending groups, with both political action committees (PACs) and 501(c)4 nonprofits expected to play heavily this fall. As of the most recent filing, these groups are sitting on sums that could add up to millions of dollars spent in favor of either party, though most seem to be biding their time before opening their checkbooks.

One reason for the delay, at least among the handful of major players on the pro-business side, is the unsettled nature of the Republican gubernatorial field, according to Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver.

“I think a lot of individuals in the business community are spread out among those four [Republican] candidates,” Weaver said. “They’re probably keeping their powder dry until the primary.”

DFL Party units more flush than GOP

The DFL’s fundraising edge came as no surprise, given the financial problems that have dogged the Republican Party of Minnesota since it fell into the red following the 2010 cycle. RPM still had $537,000 in outstanding debt as of June 1, and much of the $334,000 the party has spent this year went toward fulfilling prior obligations to creditors.

The state GOP has raised about $296,000 so far this year, $100,000 of which came in a single donation from the Freedom Club, one of the state’s best-funded conservative PACs.

On the legislative side, the House Republican Campaign Committee has collected $323,000 in 2014, and has nearly $640,000 on hand. Although that’s considerably more than the state GOP has in its coffers, House Republicans are likewise at a disadvantage compared to their DFL counterparts: The House DFL Caucus has raised more than $757,000 this year, and is holding $1.07 million in cash.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said the party is ahead of expectations on all counts, especially when compared to the relatively bleak financial picture for the state’s Republicans.

“It’s tough to imagine a scenario where they’re able to help their candidates up and down the ticket,” Martin said.

For their part, Downey and state GOP deputy chair Chris Fields expressed confidence in the GOP’s organizational strength during their Thursday press conference. The party is aiming to take advantage of the expanded absentee voting that will be in place for the first time this year, and has launched a website meant to direct conservatives to request their official ballots from the secretary of state.

Each of the new GOP campaign offices will employ one managerial staffer, who will be charged with deploying local volunteer forces. Fields said the regional operations would seek to turn out primary voters to support Jeff Johnson, the party’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate, who has three well-funded primary opponents.

“We’ll make over 500,000 phone calls between now… and the primary to ensure that Jeff Johnson is successful,” Fields said.

Independent spending a big factor

With respect to spending by outside advocacy groups, the battle comes down to labors unions and progressives versus a handful of powerful business groups. On the DFL side, the political powerhouse Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) remains the most prominent single entity and, indeed, has become the envy of groups that back conservative candidates.

As of the end of May, ABM had a total outlay of about $95,000 this year, and held about $71,000 in its bank account. But Win Minnesota and the 2014 Fund, which are expected to fund ABM’s operations, held a combined sum in excess of $1.3 million. Those accounts have drawn heavily from labor-affiliated groups, and have also taken in large checks from prominent liberal donors such as Vance Opperman and Alida Messinger, a Rockefeller heir and the ex-wife of Gov. Mark Dayton.

ABM’s only spending so far this year came in a quick blitz during the Republican State Convention, when the liberal group produced online attack ads against five of the Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Carrie Lucking, executive director of ABM, declined to say whether her group planned to continue spending during the primary season, saying she would look to seize upon any “natural messaging opportunities.”

Among business PACs, which favor Republican candidates in statewide and legislative races, no one organization can compete with the ABM-aligned triumvirate. Pro Jobs Majority leads that pack with about $755,000 in cash on hand, and has barely dipped into its account during this year.

Another trio of corporate spending groups — the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Freedom Club — are each sitting on a few hundred thousand dollars, giving those groups combined holdings that rival those of ABM and its affiliates.

Aside from the Freedom Club’s $100,000 contribution to the RPM central fund, those funds have allotted little of their cash during 2014.

Ben Golnik, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said conservative endowments should not wait until the fall to start messaging against Dayton. In the past, he observed, ABM has shown a greater willingness to spend on a continual basis, while GOP supporters tend to flood the airwaves in the campaign’s final months.

That thinking explains why Golnik’s group was first out of the gate with the mid-June release of a television and online ad that criticizes Dayton and MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange. Golnik hopes that purchase spurs other like-minded groups to take up the charge.

“The more the merrier, and the earlier the better,” Golnik said.

Absentee voting a new dimension

Weaver said business PACs’ unwillingness to spend owed largely to voter indifference at that point in the campaign, observing that exit polling tends to show that “no one gives a rip until after Labor Day.” Weaver said he could imagine a slightly more expansive spending window for all kinds of political funds this year, as the new absentee voting option has created what is essentially a six-week Election Day.

“I think you’ll see people on both sides getting their messages out earlier than they normally would,” Weaver said. He added: “It will be interesting to see how people target those voters, or find out who are the people that are likely to vote early.”

Martin, meanwhile, said he expected outside spenders to play a role in the campaign, but was not sure whether their spending would surpass that of parties and candidates. He gave a similarly cagey answer on the topic of just when the inevitable deluge of political spending might start.

“There’s going to be a lot of activity in these races,” Martin said. “When does it begin? Those are strategic questions that, I think, the answers are still unclear for a lot of people.”

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