Minnesota political spending concentrated in few hands

More than half of $53 million spent in state in recent years came from just three dozen sources.

A small group of individuals, ­political organizations and unions dominate independent spending on Minnesota state elections, accounting for more than half of the $53 million donated to political action ­committees since 2007.

A Star Tribune analysis of ­campaign finance records found that just three dozen individuals or entities have contributed more than $27 million to political action and independent expenditure committees over the past three election cycles. The analysis shows those donations heavily favored Democrats. Unless that trend is reversed, Republicans could find themselves at a disadvantage heading into the 2014 elections, when they will attempt to retake the governor’s office and the Minnesota House.

One union — the powerful ­Education Minnesota teachers union — poured $4.8 million into ­election efforts, nearly all of it benefiting Democrats. Alida Messinger, a longtime DFL contributor and former wife of Gov. Mark Dayton, donated at least $1.6 million to Democratic political action committees.

On the GOP side, the ­Republican Governors Association, based in Washington, was a top donor, giving at least $2.4 million to GOP groups. Joan Cummins, wife of GOP heavyweight Bob Cummins, gave at least $1.2 million.

Since 2007, Democrats and their supporters consistently raised and distributed more money than their opponents. Even with the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed businesses to give money directly to political action committees, business interests and Republicans have not kept up.

“That’s not a surprise at all,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey. He acknowledged that in recent years, Democrats’ allies have had superior organization, a more energized base and campaign finance rules that he said make it easy for unions to contribute to politics.

Union donations dominate

The Star Tribune analysis of political donations and spending by independent groups — based on estimates because of flaws in the state’s electronic campaign finance database — illuminates the increasingly important role of political action and independent expenditure committees in Minnesota elections. The money flowing into and out of those outside committees is not controlled by candidates or parties, but it can help or hinder their chances for success.

In the last six years, union contributions dominated donations to state political action committees. State and national unions spent $17 million in ­Minnesota between 2007 and 2012. Businesses, newly empowered to spend after the Citizens United decision, directly donated about $3 million.

During that same period, business PACs spent about $8 million in state campaigns, and some of that benefited DFLers. Unions gave most of their money to labor-affiliated PACs, which in turn supported DFL candidates, campaigns and other Democratic groups almost exclusively.

Kris Fredson, political director at the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said money is an important supplement to other kinds of support.

“We do that kind of collective work with the boots on the ground, and we obviously do that with the financial contributions, too,” he said. “When it comes to the ­political programs, [unions] are all at the same table and we are all working together with ­common goals and priorities and ­programs.”

Businesses uneasy donors

In recent years, the state Republican Party has struggled with money and donor confidence, stemming in part from scandal and financial troubles that led to the abrupt departure of one party chairman.

In addition, Republicans and business interests have had to deal with corporations uneasy about aligning themselves with controversial issues that could alienate customers.

“Even though the stakes are high, the large public companies are very sensitive,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota ­Business Partnership.

In 2010, Target Corp. faced a ferocious backlash from some of its customers because it contributed $150,000 to MN Forward, an independent campaign group Weaver helped run that was supporting GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which supports DFLers, has become a national model for independent campaigning.

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