Big-dollar donors, free to give as much as they want to Minnesota’s parties and political action committees, are pouring on the cash in advance of this year’s election.
More than $4 out of every $10 that individuals have contributed to state politics since 2013 comes from the deep pockets of those who gave $5,000 or more. While parties like to tout the number of small donors they have as testament to their broad appeal, a Star Tribune analysis shows that it’s the well-off on whom they depend.
At least 30 percent of all Democratic cash for the state party and its affiliates comes from people who give more than $5,000. For Republicans, the figure is even higher — 40 percent of their money has come from high-dollar donors since they started fundraising for 2014.
Those donations give wealthy Minnesotans an outsized role in shaping the partisan fights for power. The Star Tribune found that mega-donors are far more likely to be older and live in the Twin Cities suburbs than the voters who cast ballots in elections.
The massive influx of cash is set against a landscape of courts that have been moving to further loosen the rules on how much big donors can give and when. A federal court in Minnesota last week lifted a cap on how much large-dollar donors can give to Minnesota candidates.
“You are tilting the scales [to] fewer and fewer people having influence over the political process,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.
But Martin and the DFL have benefited from those tipped scales.
Among Minnesota political heavyweights, one fundraiser stands out: Alida Messinger. A Rockefeller heir and Gov. Mark Dayton’s ex-wife, Messinger has already pumped nearly $1 million into the 2014 contest. That is nearly three times as much as any other individual political donor and keeps her on pace with her 2012 giving. In that election, she donated about $3 million.
But the big fish also are returning to the Minnesota Republican Party committees. The state party, which had so struggled with finances that it was nearly evicted from its headquarters a few years ago, and its legislative partners have cobbled together enough high-dollar donors to compete with Messinger’s massive resources.
“I think we have effectively restructured and rebuilt confidence,” said Republican Party Chair Keith Downey.
The big 14
For the state Republican Party, nearly 60 percent of the $1.3 million it has reported raising since 2013 came from just 14 donors. The largest among them is Joan Cummins, wife of Plymouth-based Primera Technology founder Bob Cummins. Joan Cummins has given the party $185,000 since 2013, with the first check arriving days after Downey was elected. She and her husband have given an additional $166,000. That cash was spread among Republicans’ Senate campaign committees, the conservative Freedom Club and GOP candidates across the state.
Not far behind Cummins’ party giving are Bill and Tani Austin, longtime contributors to Republican politics. Together, they have supplied nearly $350,000 to GOP causes since 2013. Of that, the state party and the Freedom Club, an independent spending group largely funded by wealthy donors, each received about $150,000.
On the GOP list, Stanley Hubbard, the head of Hubbard Broadcasting, fills out the top three. He has given the state party $135,000 so far and contributed another $171,000 to other Minnesota political committees.
Fewer calls, bigger haul
In part because of Messinger’s big checks, Martin had to make fewer calls to cull his cash. For the DFL state committee, just 11 donors provided nearly $1 million, or 35 percent of the money the party has raised so far. Nearly $700,000 of that came from Messinger. She also gave $250,000 to the DFL House’s campaign arm to help keep the Legislature in DFL hands and ponied up $4,000 to her ex-husband, Dayton.
Second only to Messinger in the DFL-giving ranks was Vance Opperman, president of Key Investments and former president of Thompson Reuters. He has given the state party $85,000, according to public documents, but has been more generous with legislative campaigns. Of the nearly $400,000 he has given since last year, $160,000 has gone to the DFL House and Senate committees. The 2014 Fund and WIN Minnesota — independent committees that support Democrats — received another $100,000.
The huge cash influx from Minnesota mega-donors comes at a time when courts are shredding restrictions.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out federal rules that limited how much high-dollar donors could give in aggregate. Before the court’s decision, big givers could only give $123,200 collectively to federal parties, candidates and PACs. While limits on giving to individual committees still exist, a single donor could now pour as much as $16 million into federal campaigns. After that decision, federal donors quickly started sending in big checks.
Minnesota has never said how much the rich could give in aggregate. Large-dollar donations from individuals have long propped up parties and independent political groups. But the state had curtailed how much candidates could receive from major donors.
That changed last week when a federal court — citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s April decision — suspended the Minnesota rule that limited how much major donors could give to candidates late in competitive races.
“The state of Minnesota cannot dish out First Amendment rights on a first-come, first-serve basis,” said Lee McGrath, executive director of the libertarian Institute for Justice Minnesota chapter.
While courts move to allow mega-donors to give more, others have tried to force more disclosure from the spenders.
“It’s basic to our democracy,” Dayton said as he pleaded with the DFL-controlled Legislature to pass the campaign finance bill. His effort failed.
As a result, the contributions of many big donors avoid public scrutiny.
Although state data show about 200 political high-rollers have already given $5.6 million to Minnesota campaigns, parties and political groups to fuel this year’s election, wealthy donors have likely given much, much more to influence the control of power.
Political nonprofits, like the Democratic WIN Minnesota and the Republican-leaning Americans for Prosperity, need not report exactly what they are spending or who is funding them.
Conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch founded Americans for Prosperity, which spent more than $122 million across the nation in 2012. But that funding does not show up in most campaign finance reports because it is a nonprofit.
John Cooney, Minnesota state director, said the group has spent millions on Minnesota politics and expects to spend millions more leading up to this year’s election. Like other nonprofits, the group cannot primarily endorse or oppose candidates’ elections. But it can guide voters to share their point of view.
WIN Minnesota has chosen a different path. Rather than solely use the nonprofit arm to guide voters, it funnels much of its money to its political committees. The political committees are registered with the state campaign finance agency and disclose donors and spending.
In 2012, WIN Minnesota’s nonprofit raised nearly $2 million, according to IRS documents. Of that, about $740,000 went to political organizations that reveal their funding.
Despite that, the exact sources of WIN’s nonprofit funding are not disclosed. Adam Duininck, executive director of WIN Minnesota’s nonprofit and the WIN Minnesota Political Action Fund, said while their donors are not explicitly revealed, they are similar to those who give publicly. Those givers include Alida Messinger and unions.
“We’ve always erred on the side of more disclosure and transparency,” said Duininck.