In the leafy and affluent suburbs of Minnetonka and Plymouth, a trio of DFL candidates and one Republican have collectively raised about $200,000 in their bid to represent House District 44B, the highest such total among the state’s 134 House races and one of the five races in which candidate fundraising has already exceeded the $100,000 mark.
The epic cash battle has been propelled in part by the blended political characteristics of the district, where voters are often fiscally conservative but also socially moderate and more than willing to cross party lines.
The outcomes of a handful of races in similarly “purple” suburban districts — mostly located in the west metro — will likely determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the House next session, so the heavy flow of cash into the campaign coffers surprised few insiders.
But in 44B, there is an additional factor: an unusually intense competition between three well-established DFL candidates — Jon Applebaum, Jon Tollefson and Anthony Wagner — to decide who will face the GOP nominee, Ryan Rutzick, in the general election.
David Long, the chair of the DFL Senate District 44, said the contested primary is a first for the district, where DFLers traditionally struggled to field candidates prior to the election of Rep. John Benson, DFL-Minnetonka, who is retiring.
“We used to have to beg candidates to run,” Long said. “Now that we’ve had the seat for eight years, we believe it’s ours to lose. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have said that. But the district has turned — if not blue, a shade of purplish blue. When you get an open seat like that, you get a lot of people interested in running.”
Long said he was not surprised by the candidates’ fundraising prowess, given that “all three of these guys have been going at it hard and had a lot of contacts.”
Applebaum, an attorney and businessman who leads the pack with more than $76,000 in donations, said he always knew the race would be unusually expensive, which he cited as a factor in his decision to forgo public campaign subsidies and the attendant spending limits. He noted that Rutzik, the Republican nominee who has already amassed $52,000 war chest, also did not sign the voluntary spending limit.
“This is an indication this is going to be a very expensive race,” said Applebaum. “I’m confident in predicting that this will be one of the top three most expensive races [for a House seat]. And I’m not going to let us get outspent and, without question, I’m not going to get outworked.”
Outside spending groups
Applebaum, who said he already has scheduled additional fundraisers after the August 12 primary, said the race will inevitably attract considerable attention from outside spending groups, increasingly important players in state legislative races across the country.
“Already, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition has been putting stuff out about me, sending trackers to follow me around,” said Applebaum. “This is a bellwether district, so I fully expect attack from Republican independent expenditure groups.”
While Applebaum’s fundraising prowess leads all DFL House candidates, he trails two Republicans, both of whom are running for seats in nearby suburban districts.
Overall, businessman and political newcomer Dario Anselmo, who is running in 49A, has the distinction as the top candidate fundraiser. He has banked more than $83,000 in his bid to unseat the veteran legislator, Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina.
“With the type of money I’ve raised, I almost feel like I’m working for Jerry Lewis on the telethon,” said Anselmo. “When I first got into this, I thought I’d need to come up with about $30,000 and someone said, ‘Double that. No triple that.’”
That sticker shock is not surprising. In 2012, an open Senate seat in District 49 produced the most costly legislative race in the state’s history, generating approximately $870,000 in campaign spending.
In that hotly contested race, Democrat Melissa Franzen bested Keith Downey and the rest of Edina’s Capitol delegation went from Republican to DFL, a key factor in the DFL takeover of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
While Franzen and Downey each raised and spent more than $110,000, spending by outside groups tipped heavily in the favor of the ultimate victor, Franzen.
Peter Hill, a party activist and director in the DFL 3rd Congressional District, noted that national political parties and independent groups have become increasingly important players in state races.
“With Congress in a stalemate, both parties have turned their attention to state legislators as places where they get stuff done,” said Hill. “After what happened in Edina, where there was a complete flip, I think both parties will be pouring resources into the really tight races.”
Just to the south in 48B, the frenetic fundraising is being driven largely by a primary challenge of the incumbent, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. Loon, a deputy minority leader who is considered a moderate, has raised more than $83,000, much of it after conservative challenger Sheila Kihne successfully blocked Loon’s endorsement this spring.
Between Loon, Kihne and the DFL candidate, Joan Howe-Pullis, candidate fundraising in the district is third highest in the state — and that’s without factoring in the extensive spending from outside groups interested in the outcome of the GOP primary.
The Minnesota Family Council, which has criticized Loon for voting to legalize same sex marriage, has spent approximately $32,000 on “issue advocacy” cable TV ads related to the race. Loon enjoys support from many establishment Republican groups, including the House Republican Campaign Committee and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, both of which have been spending on her behalf.
While Loon was of just four House Republicans to break ranks with her party on the marriage issue, her views aligned with voters in 48B, who rejected the 2012 constitutional amendment to prohibit same sex marriage by a 60 percent margin.
Marriage still an issue
The shadow of the same-sex marriage issue also looms in the two rural House districts where the candidates have already crossed the $100,000 threshold in fundraising.
In 17B, Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Wilmar, has raised approximately $48,000 as she girds for a general election showdown with Republican businessman David Baker, who has raised more than $69,000. As one of just two House Democrats to vote against legalizing gay marriage, Sawatzky is the DFL version of Loon – a politician who dissented from her the orthodox position of her party and voted in accord with the prevailing opinion in her district.
That may help the first termer in the Republican-leaning 17B, where 61 percent of voters in 2012 supported a constitutional ban on same sex marriage. But the presence of a libertarian-leaning candidate in the 2012 election also helped Sawatzky, who prevailed with a plurality, not a majority.
Baker’s considerable fundraising success is a strong indication that Republicans think the Democrats stole a district that’s rightfully theirs, and that they plan to swipe it back.
It’s a similar story along the border in far west central Minnesota’s District 12A, where another first term DFLer in a rural, Republican-leaning district is also gearing up for an expensive re-election campaign.
Unlike Sawatzky, Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, went against the prevailing opinion of his constituents on same sex marriage issue. That vote has translated into plenty of campaign donations from far flung gay rights activists and has made the 12A contest the fifth richest in terms of candidate fundraising.
Two Republican hopefuls, Jeffrey Backer and Nancy Taffe, are headed to a primary for the right to take on McNamar in the general. That’s a good indication that neither is intimidated by McNamar’s cash advantages.
Gregg Peppin, a GOP consultant, said he thinks the marriage issue could play a big role in both Sawatzky and McNamar campaigns. In Sawatzky’s case, he ventured, the question is “whether voters will hold her accountable for the sins of her caucus.” For McNamar (who, like Sawatzky, squeezed into office with under 50 percent of the vote), the issue will likely be thornier, Peppin said.