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Attorney general candidate Keith Ellison has raised $212,745 — 64 percent more than his closest competitor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Attorney general candidate Keith Ellison has raised $212,745 — 64 percent more than his closest competitor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Money-wise, Keith Ellison roars ahead in AG race

A little less than two months since he signed on as a state attorney general candidate, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has zoomed past his competitors on the fund-raising front.

According to financial summaries submitted last week to the state’s Campaign Finance Board, Ellison has raised a beefy $212,745 total—64 percent higher than his closest competitor. Ellison entered the race on June 5.

GOP-endorsed candidate Doug Wardlow comes closest to matching Ellison. Wardlow has raised $136,327 since entering the race last year. He began accepting contributions in March 2017, records show.

Despite Ellison’s late entrance, he also has spent more in the race—$106,947—than anyone. Wardlow has spent a combined $70,859 in his year and a half as a candidate. No one else comes very close, either in contributions or expenditures.

In the most recent filings released Tuesday, Ellison reported that $4,575 of his money came from lobbyists; $8,000 came from political action committees. Among the latter, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Mah Mah Wi No political fund gave him $2,500, as did two labor unions.

Ellison’s $200,170 in individual donations outstrips all other candidates. Well over half of his donors come from the metro area, some of whom are quite illustrious. They include businessman Vance Opperman ($2,500), attorney Charlie Nauen ($1,000), power couple Sam and Sylvia Kaplan (a combined $2,500), former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak ($1,000) and Gov. Mark Dayton ($500).

Ellison also has significant financial support from Minnesota’s Muslim community and numerous out-of-staters—including New York theater actress Wendy vanden Heuvel ($2,500), sister of liberal magazine publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Wardlow has amassed $5,100 in PAC contributions, including $2,500 from both the conservative Freedom Club State PAC and the Action 4 Liberty PAC. Another $8,924 comes from various local Republican Party units. Individual contributors helped Wardlow tally an overall $121,478 at the filing deadline. He can count local broadcast mogul Stanley Hubbard ($2,500) among his supporters.

Ellison also had the largest cash balance at the deadline—$105,798. Wardlow had the second-most cash on hand, at $65,468.

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor, said it will be hard for the four other DFL candidates in the race to match Ellison in the Aug. 14 primary.

“Part of the primary is all about name recognition at this point,” Schultz said. “He is such a big player here that he’s just basically eating up all the money.”

If money is the measure, Wardlow appears to have little to worry about in the GOP primary. Only one other Republican, former DFL state Sen. Bob Lessard, has raised any money at all. The Ol’ Trapper’s receipts total $1,350. He had $1,123 of cash on hand after expenses at the filing deadline.

Republican Sharon Anderson hasn’t raised any money. Nor has Noah M. Johnson, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party’s candidate.

Wobbly course

But others have—and if it were a normal year, Schultz said Wednesday, most DFLers’ fund-raising performances would be strong enough to compete. It’s been anything but a normal year.

By late 2017, a bevy of Democrats were campaigning for attorney general while incumbent Attorney General Lori Swanson mulled a run for governor. In late January, Swanson announced she would not run for governor and would stand for reelection.

Not wanting to challenge their party’s incumbent, most DFLers—including former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center—suspended campaigns and fund-raising. Only the eventual endorsee, Matt Pelikan, stayed in.

In a stunning move on June 2, Swanson suddenly quit the AG race when Pelikan came within spitting distance of her DFL delegate total, after a single convention ballot. With no other challengers, Pelikan was nominated by acclamation.

Swanson quickly switched over to the governor’s race with retiring U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan as running mate. Erstwhile DFL contenders John Lesch, Ryan Winkler and Sam Clark all stayed on the sidelines. But Rothman and Hilstrom refiled in June.

Since then, Hilstrom’s fund-raising has nearly matched her 2017 performance. But Rothman seems to have suffered badly from Swanson’s wobbly 2018 course, according to Schultz.

The former Commerce commissioner’s fund-raising efforts started out strong. After announcing his AG candidacy in November, he raised $65,835 by year’s end. He has not regained momentum in his Mach II run.

Since reentering the race, Rothman has raised just $18,365—giving him $84,200 in overall campaign contributions. He had $25,888 in the bank at the filing deadline.

Hilstrom raised $40,555 by the end of 2017. Only $17,930 of that came from individual contributors. About $5,000 comprised cash and in-kind contributions to herself, while another $14,400 came from two cash transfers out of her House district campaign committee.

In 2018, she raised another $41,815—a total that, at $82,370, falls barely short Rothman’s overall tally. HIlstrom had $21,970 cash on hand at the filing deadline—again, slightly less than Rothman.

She has received $21,258 from individual contributors in 2018. Her total war chest has been buoyed by $15,745 from lobbyists and $11,700 from unions and political committees. Rothman took in no PAC money and just $850 from lobbyists—including $350 from political consultant Buck Humphrey.

Meanwhile, Tom Foley—the former Ramsey County Attorney—has made a relatively impressive showing money-wise, despite a late entry to the race. Foley became a candidate on June 5.

In just two months, he has raised $62,150—all but $1,100 from individual donors. Hubbard ($2,500) appears again, this time as a Foley supporter. Others favoring him are prominent personal-injury attorney William Sieben ($1,000), former Ventura administration spokesman John Wodele ($500) and ex-Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner ($250). Foley had $32,605 cash on hand at the filing deadline.

As a fund-raiser, Pelikan leads only Lessard, Johnson and Anderson.

He has taken in $45,206 since receiving his first campaign donation in October 2017, though prominent attorney Mike Ciresi ($1,500) is among his supporters. Pelikan had just a $13,931 cash balance at the June 30 deadline. DFL party units have contributed no money to their endorsed candidate.

Schultz said that meshes with his broader observation. He said many Democrats tell him they support all DFL-endorsed candidates—except Pelikan. “Of all the people,” Schultz said, “he looks like the accidental nominee.”

Dark money?

The specter of dark money hovered over the Ellison campaign Wednesday when MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan tweeted out that a group called People’s Lawyer PAC independently raised almost $200,000 for Ellison. None of its money appears to have been spent on Ellison by the financial reporting deadline.

But its tilt is no mystery. The group’s website features Ellison’s picture on its front page above a headline: “Why we support Keith.”

The PAC’s backers include Alexander Soros, son of left-wing philanthropist George Soros. He gave the PAC $100,000, according to the group’s Campaign Finance Board filing. Opperman gave another $50,000, while West Coast philanthropist Stephen Silberstein contributed $20,000.

Wardlow seized on the Soros name, a bugaboo in conservative circles, to blast Ellison as a dark money beneficiary.

“Minnesotans should be aware that the Soros family is trying to buy this election for Keith Ellison,” Wardlow said in a Wednesday press release.

The Ellison campaign responded dismissively later in the day.

“We have no comment on an independent PAC, which is unaffiliated and uncoordinated with our campaign,” said Ellison spokesman Sam Fettig, in an email Wednesday. “Our people-powered campaign is proud of the fact that we are fueled by 94 percent small-dollar donors giving $200 or less.”

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