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Keith Ellison maintains slim fundraising edge

Though he trailed by 7 points in the latest polls, DFL attorney general candidate Keith Ellison maintains a slim fundraising advantage over his Republican opponent Doug Wardlow.

According to financial disclosure reports filed with the state Campaign Finance Board on Oct. 29, Ellison has out-raised Wardlow for the year—but his momentum appears to be slowing.

The Democrat has total receipts of $920,417 from all sources for all of 2018. Of that, $764,722 came from individual donors scattered throughout the United States.

More money came to the Ellison campaign from lobbyists ($6,225), direct contribution from political committees and action funds ($51,000) and political party and campaign committee sources ($1,300). In addition, Ellison received $71,673 from public subsidies and $2,000 in “other contributions.”

Wardlow, meanwhile, has raised $785,948 for the year, filings indicate.

Of that, $672,900 came from individual donors, a number of whom also are from out of state. More cash came from lobbyists ($3,700), political committees and action funds ($13,200) and political party and campaign committee sources ($24,274). In addition, Wardlow received $71,673 in public subsidies and $200 from other sources.

Ellison had more cash on hand at the end of the filing period ($334,830) compared to Wardlow ($154,988).

Yet recent fundraising momentum has swung toward Wardlow. At the close of the previous filing period on Sept. 18, the Republican reported $425,761 in total receipts. That means he raised $360,187 between Sept. 18 and Oct. 22.

Ellison brought in $675,719 at the close of the September filing period, meaning he has raised just $244,698 between Sept. 18 and Oct. 22—$115,489 less than Wardlow over that period.

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and attorney, said Wardlow’s accelerating receipts are a powerful indicator that donors think he can win. If so, Wardlow would become the first GOP attorney general since 1971.

“The polls are suggesting that he has a lead at this point and I think the money is just flowing in now,” Schultz said.

Not the full picture

Outside money is harder to track. The relatively small PAC contributions reflected in the candidates’ filings represent only cash contributions directly to campaigns, and even smaller in-kind contributions. They do not reflect the wild spending evident to anyone watching television, listening to the radio or surfing the web, and being pummeled with AG campaign ads.

The Wardlow and Ellison campaigns both are buying plenty of their own slots, of course. And the Minnesota DFL also is weighing in heavily in the race, mostly with ads challenging Wardlow.

According to its most recent filings, the Minnesota DFL spent $837,991 on TV, radio and Internet ad buys criticizing Wardlow, from Oct. 12 to Oct. 22. It spent considerably less—$187,107—on ads lauding Ellison. Combined that’s more than $1 million overall in less than a month.

The state Republican Party has done nothing like that on behalf of its candidate. Its most recent filing shows a single $400 contribution to the candidate, made May 18. However, smaller party units throughout the state have given Wardlow more than $24,000 combined.

Wardlow lists among his PAC and political committee contributors the Dorsey Political Fund, which gave him $2,500; the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, which has contributed $2,000; and the MSCA-PAC, which represents Minnesota cattlemen and contributed $2,500.

Ellison also counts the Dorsey Fund as a $2,500 contributor. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Mah Mah Wi No political fund gave the DFLer $2,500, as did the Communications Workers of America Political Action Fund.

There are some 420 PACs registered with Campaign Finance Board, the vast bulk representing local Minnesota interests.

What makes tracking campaign spending so difficult, Schultz said, is that national groups also have taken to spending big money on races like Minnesota’s AG race—and they are hard to track.

“They’re supposed to register in the state of Minnesota,” Schultz said. “More often than not, they don’t.”

It has become a recurrent problem in the post-Citizens United era for outside groups to charge into local races, wallets wide, and disburse loads of money without bothering to register with the state, he said.

A further complication, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, stems from companies listed as 501(c)4 nonprofits. They often can get away with vague explanations for their campaign spending because they are not obligated to specify what their money purchases.

After the 2012 elections, the Center estimated, 501(c) groups spent at least $333 million. “And that’s only the money we can track,” the group’s website says.

“You’re looking at a slew of dark money that’s out there right now in terms of the AG’s race,” Schultz said. “There is a huge gap between what I think is being spent and what has been reported as being spent.”

Schultz guesses the Minnesota AG’s race could end up costing more than $4 million. He thinks that outside groups might spend on the order of $1.5 million on the race, though he calls that a “wild guess.”

Steven Schier, the Carleton College political science professor, said Minnesota has rarely—if ever—seen so much poured into an attorney general’s race.

In a normal year, he said, the incumbent AG might raise several hundred thousand dollars. Lori Swanson, for example, raised $369,946 running for re-election in 2014.

Normally, a challenger would raise a fraction as much. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, Swanson’s last challenger, raised just $129,995 total in 2014.

“What we see in the attorney general’s race is usually what we see in the [Amy] Klobuchar race this year—it’s very lopsided and one way,” Schier said.

Schier reckons that a lot of outside spending backing Wardlow comes from various outside conservative groups, but it is difficult to know how much. “A lot of it is under the radar,” Schier said.

To Schier as to Schultz, it all signals that conservatives with money to spend think their investment in Wardlow might well pay off with a win.

“It tells you that this office is at risk [of being lost] to the DFL like it hasn’t been for 50 years,” Schier said.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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