The DFL holds a significant cash advantage going into the crucial final weeks of Minnesota’s election campaign, fueled by a handful of wealthy individuals and its allies in the labor movement and especially government unions.
These wealthy donors, labor unions and business groups are dumping millions into the battle for control of the Minnesota State Capitol, according to campaign finance reports released Wednesday.
Without a statewide race for governor or U.S. Senate this November, the attention and money of the state’s wealthiest interests are focused on about 25 competitive legislative races that will determine control of state government.
The stakes are high: If the DFL can flip seven seats in the House and defend its Senate majority, the party will again assume control of all levers of state government they lost in 2014. That would give DFL Gov. Mark Dayton the ability to shape his final two years in office and advance his key priorities, like universal prekindergarten and a robust statewide transportation plan funded by a gas tax increase.
“We’re pretty flush with cash for the final 41 days,” said DFL Chairman Ken Martin, a key architect in the party’s efforts to expand power at the Capitol. “It’s not a guarantee we’re going to win, but it lets us fund our operations and do what we need to do to help our candidates up and down the ballot.”
Republicans and their business allies want to fend off the DFL onslaught, especially in the House, where they have used their majority to thwart Dayton initiatives, roll back some environmental and other business regulations and attempt to hold the line on government spending.
For the state teachers union, the outcome is important enough that they are borrowing money to help their DFL friends. The union’s political action committee borrowed $540,000 in recent months and transferred $185,000 to the House DFL and $200,000 to the Senate DFL. The union made the contributions almost immediately after securing the loans, records show.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Minnesota Republicans have grown used to the financial disadvantage.
“We were able to overcome it in 2010 and 2014, and I suspect we will be able to do so in 2016,” he said. “We can’t match a statewide network of forced contributions from teachers unions and government unions like the Democrats have,” he said, referring to union dues that go toward political spending.
Unlike Democrats in states around the country who face a constant cash crunch, the DFL and its allies have created a durable financial infrastructure to support expensive media and field operations.
Martin noted that the state campaign finance reports are just half the picture for the DFL and his counterparts at the GOP. Both parties also raise significant money for federal committees — the DFL raised $4.25 million for its federal committee and Republicans took in $985,000 — to be used on get-out-the-vote operations in state races, for instance.
Alida Messinger, the ex-wife of Dayton and one of the state’s biggest political contributors, gave $815,000 to WIN Minnesota, plus another $440,000 this election cycle to other DFL groups and candidates.
WIN Minnesota acts as the fundraising arm of the DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which has already spent $2.2 million on independent expenditure campaigns.
House Republicans raised $1.25 million and spent $800,000, leaving them with $1.13 million cash on hand.
Republicans and their allies in the business community hope to prevent the DFL from picking up the seven seats needed to flip the lower chamber, which they fear could lead to a less friendly business climate, especially when it comes to taxes and regulations.
The Minnesota Business Partnership, with members that include the state’s largest companies like U.S. Bank and Cargill, contributed $35,000, while the Chamber of Commerce, a broader business group, gave $30,000. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which owns Mystic Lake Casino, gave $80,000.
The House DFL raised $2.4 million and spent $1.8 million, leaving it with $1.15 million in cash. Big donors include more than $450,000 from AFSCME, a major public employee union.
The Senate DFL raised nearly $2.5 million and spent $2.3 million. It still has $1.3 million on hand to defend its majority. AFSCME also contributed $450,000.
Public workers — fearing the GOP policies that gutted public sector unions in Wisconsin — generally prefer a DFL Legislature with its more generous budgets and policies friendlier to organized labor.
Senate Republicans need to flip six seats to take the majority, which they believe is in reach because a handful of battleground districts have been leaning Republican in recent years. The Senate GOP has $300,000 on hand after spending $800,000, including a $500,000 contribution to an outside group, essentially outsourcing a chunk of its campaign.
Early spending decisions indicate where the battle is being waged thus far. The House is the major battleground, and just a few districts in particular. The two sides are fighting hardest in St. Cloud, Red Wing, Willmar and the metro suburbs.
Both sides acknowledge that for all the spending on mail advertising, radio and even TV, the race will be heavily influenced by factors outside the control of the candidates and the organizations backing them: namely, the presidential race.
Still, before the next campaign finance reports are released a week before Election Day, more money will hit the campaign trail, which means voters in those districts will receive increasing volumes of mail while hearing more and more TV and radio ads.