According to the Gallup Poll, Minnesota should be a state with highly competitive elections between our state’s two major parties. In 2014, by their numbers, 43.5 percent of the state’s survey respondents were Democrats or leaned Democratic compared with 39.2 percent who were Republican or leaned that way. Gallup thus classifies Minnesota as a competitive state along with other bellwether states such as Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina and Colorado.
Yet Republicans have not won a statewide race in nine years. What gives? One obvious reason lies in the organizational woes of the state’s GOP, which has struggled with mammoth debts incurred under prior party chairs. A second reason is the strong conservative bent of the party’s endorsement process that produced statewide candidates like 2010’s Tom Emmer and Kurt Bills, who had limited statewide appeal.
A third important reason lies in the money advantage of the DFL, revealed in the recently released state campaign finance reports. In several important ways, the GOP has failed to become financially competitive with the Democrats.
In 2014 spending by the party organizations, the DFL outspent the GOP by almost 2 to 1 — $15 million to $8.6 million. By the end of the year, the Democratic Party had a positive cash balance of $126,000 and a debt of only $30,000. The Republican Party was in far worse shape, with a $460,000 debt and a meager balance of $680. The legacy of prior mismanagement has left the state GOP with a fiscal hangover that has stunted its competitiveness in 2014.
A similar disproportion in favor of the DFL appeared in state House party caucus spending, a focus of much energetic campaign activity. The House DFL caucus expended $928,000 compared with about half as much spent by the House GOP caucus, $470,000.
Despite this disadvantage, Republican picked up 11 additional state House seats to take control of the chamber by a 72-62 margin. State DFL Party chair Ken Martin claimed to Politics in Minnesota that the outcome shows that money “is not the only predictor of whether you are going to be successful.”
Maybe, but there is more to the story of state House campaign spending. At least four other independent groups spent on behalf of state House GOP candidates — the Freedom Club, Minnesota Jobs Coalition, Minnesota’s Future and Minnesota Action Network. That resulted in a rare instance of spending that was closer to parity between the two parties. Including publicly reported independent group spending, the GOP expended $4.3 million on behalf of state House candidates compared with the DFL’s $5.4 million. Closer to parity, but still an advantage of over $1 million for the DFL.
But part of the spending story remains unclear, because some organizations don’t have to publicly report their donors. These “dark money” groups are nonprofit organizations that can spend unlimited funds in elections without reporting their donors.
Beyond the state House races, the 2014 elections were a DFL romp. Democratic congressional incumbents Rick Nolan and Colin Peterson held onto their seats in a year when nationwide Republicans were picking up scores of U.S. House seats. Most statewide races featured comfortable Democratic victories.
Consider the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who won 50 to 45 percent, enjoyed a large spending advantage over his GOP challenger, Jeff Johnson. Dayton’s campaign outspent Johnson’s by $3 million to $2.4 million. On top of that, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, an independent pro-DFL group, spent $2.4 million on anti-Johnson ads throughout the state, equaling the total amount Johnson raised and spent for his campaign.
This gave Dayton an almost 2-to-1 spending advantage. His ex-wife, Alida Messinger, a scion of the Rockefeller family, gave almost $1 million to the Alliance effort.
Al Franken’s spending margin over his GOP challenger Mike McFadden was even greater than that of Dayton over Johnson. According to opensecrets.org, Franken raised four times McFadden’s total, making the U.S. Senate campaign a financial landslide for the incumbent. Franken won the election by a large margin, 53 to 43 percent.
The overall Minnesota spending picture for 2014, however, remains a bit fuzzy. There are other important disclosure loopholes. Only funds used for “express advocacy” — instructing voters to vote for or against a specific candidate — have to be disclosed under state law. Lots of other campaign activities that help candidates and parties, such as voter research and organizational work, involve undisclosed spending.
But here’s what we do know. The DFL had a consistent advantage over the GOP in reported spending in 2014, and state Democrats fared far better in the 2014 election than did their fellow partisans in most other states.
So is Minnesota, as Gallup puts it, a “competitive” state between the two major parties? In party identification, yes. In reported campaign spending, the most competitive races involved the state House. In election results, competitiveness appeared only in state House races.
Otherwise, the DFL cash advantage correlates with electoral success. True, candidate quality helps to explain the outcome, but the cash edge can’t be discounted.
If Minnesota elections are to become competitive in actual practice, the state GOP needs to get its financial house in order — and quickly.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.