Few American political stereotypes are as durable as the myth that Republicans are the party of fat cats. You know -- the corporate tycoons and investment bankers who puff cigars in dark, paneled rooms as they bankroll elections for Big Business. Democrats, in the myth's telling, are Ordinary Joes -- lunch-bucket types who fight a lopsided, uphill battle against entrenched big-money interests.
Welcome to the real world, Minnesotans.
In the 2010 governor's race, it's Republican Tom Emmer -- an Ordinary Joe with seven kids to feed -- who's pounding the pavement for every $1,000 check he brings in. He and his team spend lots of time focusing on small donors -- the source, despite the myth, of a disproportionate amount of the Republican Party's cash.
But isn't Big Business pulling the strings for Emmer behind the scenes? Hardly. We saw that recently, when Target Corp. gave $150,000 to MN Forward -- a business-friendly PAC that supports Emmer against his three Democratic rivals, who have all vowed to raise taxes. Liberals and the media went berserk. As they tarred and feathered Target, their message was clear: Companies that support Republican efforts risk paying a big public-relations price.
Meanwhile, the three DFL candidates for governor have raised a cool $9 million for their campaigns -- a sum that dwarfs Emmer's $910,000. Two of those candidates, gazillionaires Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton, are financing their races from their own capacious pockets. Unlike Emmer, they don't have to eat rubber-chicken dinners at rinky-dink fundraisers. They just write gold-plated checks to themselves.
Entenza has loaned his campaign $4.7 million heading into Tuesday's DFL primary. The money comes courtesy of his wife's fortune, made in the health care industry.
But the 800-pound gorilla in the governor's race is Mark Dayton, department store heir and current front-runner. Dayton's wealth has enabled him to make running for public office a hobby for 30 years.
In 1982 he dropped $6.7 million on a failed U.S. Senate campaign. In 1998, the figure was $2.1 million for an unsuccessful governor's bid. In 2000, he spent a whopping $12 million to become a U.S. senator. In the current campaign, so far, the sum is $3.3 million. All told, that's a jaw-dropping $24 million of Dayton dough.
Dayton's own resources are augmented by donations to DFL interests from his megarich family. In this election cycle, the family -- his son, aunt, cousin and ex-wife-- have poured $851,000 into two DFL political action committees: Win Minnesota and the 2010 Fund. That's almost as much as Emmer has raised in his entire campaign.
The biggest family donor is Alida Messinger, Dayton's ex-wife. (Must have been a friendly breakup!) She's contributed an eye-popping $550,000 to the two PACS.
The source of Messinger's money? She's the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller -- founder of Standard Oil -- who nearly monopolized the American oil business in the late 1800s and died with a fortune valued at $670 billion in current dollars.
Wait. Isn't it Republicans who are supposed to be in the pocket of Big Oil?
The DFL's bottomless well of cash has another source: Big Labor. Since 2009, Minnesota's three largest public-employee labor unions have spent $750,000 on the DFL agenda -- five times as much as the Target gift to MN Forward that so incensed liberals.
What does this flood of money make possible? Among other things, an endless barrage of anti-Emmer TV ads. They're being underwritten -- to the tune of $685,000 so far -- by a PAC called Alliance for a Better Minnesota. Where does its money come from? Win Minnesota and the 2010 Fund -- the Dayton family piggybanks -- are major sources, having funneled it $1.6 million in this election cycle.
This clever arrangement is handy for Mark Dayton. It means his own campaign can claim the high ground, with feel-good TV ads about Dayton's concern for little folks. Meanwhile, Dayton's family helps fund a second-track, below-the-radar blitz of anti-Emmer attack ads.
For years, liberals and the media have fulminated about "too much money" in politics, and have called loudly for campaign finance reform. This year, however, they're happy to watch as superrich DFLers bulldoze their way through Minnesota's political landscape. If the situation were reversed -- if Emmer were the free-spending millionaire -- I suspect we'd see indignant headlines every week.
The Democratic money machine may succeed in buying the governor's mansion for Dayton -- whom Time magazine named as one of the five worst senators in 2005.
Then again, maybe not. In 2009, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey -- a fiscal conservative and scourge of public-employee unions -- surged to victory after being outspent three to one by his multimillionaire Democratic opponent. Christie might have a word of caution for Mark Dayton.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at email@example.com.