While many Minnesota legislative races have become costly six-figure slugfests, some have remained cheap contests harking back to the days when an ambitious politician with supporters could win a place under the State Capitol’s marble dome.
According to a Star Tribune analysis, more than 50 of last year’s House and Senate races saw less than $30,000 in spending from candidates, parties and outside groups. Those small-dollar contests are in sharp contrast to the steadily rising price of legislative admission in races across the state.
Looking at data from more than 5,000 legislative races over the past decade, the Star Tribune recently reported that the cost of the 2012 House and Senate races had zoomed to $24 million, double total spending in 2002.
The average House race last year saw more than $91,000 in spending, while an average Senate race topped $171,000.
But a quarter of last year’s races remained stubbornly below average.
In 2012, state Rep. David FitzSimmons won his seat in a contest with about $9,000 in total spending, making it the cheapest race where voters had two November choices. FitzSimmons’ $7,272 in campaign spending made up most of the cash.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” said FitzSimmons, R-Albertville. “I tried to make everything stretch as far as possible.”
Second only to FitzSimmons in the cheap seats: DFL state Rep. Leon Lillie, of North St. Paul. The total spending on his race last year was less than $14,000, with almost all of it coming from Lillie’s own coffers.
Lillie said he actually used his race as a test — how little money can you spend and still win? Where possible, he split campaign costs with Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, and he handmade his campaign signs.
“It was actually fun, to be honest, hand-making these signs. … It was a family effort,” he said.
But he’s seen the impact of an expensive race. Former Sen. Ted Lillie, a Republican from Lake Elmo and Rep. Lillie’s brother, lost his seat in a 2012 contest that saw nearly $600,000 in spending. The vast majority of that came from outside groups fighting for control of the swing suburban seat.
The difference: Ted Lillie’s race was in a competitive district and Leon Lillie’s was not.
The 50 least expensive races include contests where the incumbent was unopposed and legislators who won by 30, 40 or even 80 percent of the vote. Those districts are dominated by just one party.
FitzSimmons, a longtime political activist in GOP-dominated Wright County, won his 2012 race by a margin of 24 percentage points.
In Lillie’s suburban district, DFL candidates won every partisan race by double-digit margins. And Lillie?
He got 60 percent of the vote, besting his Republican opponent by 21 percentage points.
But even districts with little partisan seesawing can see interesting intraparty races. Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage have put FitzSimmons on a watch list. He was one of a handful of Republicans who voted to legalize gay marriage, and groups on both sides of that battle have promised to spend campaign cash on his re-election bid.
FitzSimmons said he’s ready for whatever comes. But he’d rather not spend to defend himself.
“It’s pretty silly to be spending Republican money on the internal battles,” he said.
Lawmakers return to St. Paul on Monday for a one-day special session to approve disaster-relief funds.