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Big money pours into District 34 Senate race

Kevin Featherly//October 30, 2020

Big money pours into District 34 Senate race

Kevin Featherly//October 30, 2020

The race for Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer’s seat must be a hot one, because it sure is getting expensive.

A survey of the Oct. 26 campaign finance disclosure by candidates and by the major DFL- and GOP-aligned organizations shows that at least $1.4 million has been spent on the Senate District 34 race.

That would translate to almost $30 a vote, if 2016’s turnout of 48,492 voters in the district holds steady.

It’s a lot more spending than would be seen in the usual state Senate race, said David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor. In most years, he said, a race like the Limmer-Westlin match-up would involve around $500,000 in total spending, even factoring in independent expenditures.

The Senate race is a rematch between Limmer and family law attorney Bonnie Westlin. Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has been a legislator since the late 1980s and has not customarily faced tough races. He beat Westlin in the 2016 race by a 20-point margin.

But this year, Democrats—frustrated by Limmer’s machinations on gun reform and pot legislation and eager to wrestle away the Senate’s GOP majority—think they have a shot. Even some GOP election observers think he might be in trouble this year.

Limmer’s district voted reliably Republican for years. But it was narrowly won by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz in 2018. And in the District 34B House race that year, incumbent GOP Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, lost his seat to Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove, by 53% to 47%.

Democrats and their allies are putting their money where their Senate District 34 hopes are. On her own, Westlin raised $165,376 this year at the close of the October reporting period; Limmer answered with $49,787 of his own. That’s a combined $215,163 raised that the two have raised in a district where the same candidates hauled in a combined $86,000 in 2016.

But that’s barely the beginning of it. Independent expenditure figures compiled by Minnesota Lawyer—which don’t include many smaller organizations—show that major left-leaning groups like the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the Everytown for Gun Safety, Education Minnesota and Planned Parenthood are pouring money into the district, spending it both for Westlin and against Limmer.

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, for example, committed $101,462 in support of Westlin at the end of the reporting period that closed on Oct. 19. But the group spent more than double that—$207,525—against Limmer, mostly in TV and online attack advertising.

Everytown for Gun Safety, still stinging from Limmer’s refusal to consider gun reform over the past few years, spent $79,428, all on direct mail advertising against the incumbent. Planned Parenthood has spent $44,260 supporting Westlin and $40,583 attacking Limmer. Education Minnesota, meanwhile, put all of the $42,043 it has spent into support of Westlin. It spent no money against Limmer.

Combined, the DFL-leaning groups whose filings we surveyed spent just over $650,000, both supporting Westlin and attacking Limmer.

GOP-leaning groups haven’t spent quite as much—a total of $474,407—but their strategies are similar.

One major conservative independent group, Advance Minnesota, spent a tidy $175,268 at the end of the reporting period attacking Westlin, mostly through TV ads; it spent $17,633 touting Limmer.

The Freedom Club State PAC, meanwhile, spent $66,761 on Limmer and $22,000 attacking Westlin. The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses spent $66,761, all supporting Limmer. The Senate Victory Fund, spent $8,227 supporting Limmer and $26,565 attacking Westlin.

Schultz said he thinks that somewhere between five and eight Minnesota Senate seats might be in play—and not all for the Democrats. Schultz thinks Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, both of whom are in solid Trump districts, could likely lose.

He thinks the Democrats are likely to win the open suburban seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Anderson, DFL-Plymouth. The seat of Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, could also be in play, as might the seat held by Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, a freshman who won by a scant 141 votes in 2016.

But all in all, not that many seats are in play, Schultz said. That’s why so much money is being poured into a scant few legislative districts, including Limmer’s exurban district.

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