Welcome to the big time. Minnesota’s hotly contested elections — and their importance for political control here and in Washington — made us a target for a deluge of political money in 2018.
Digging out from Tuesday’s elections presents unsettling patterns in campaign spending. We discovered these patterns by closely tracking state and federal disclosures this fall.
Here is what we discovered about spending on Minnesota elections.
No. 1: Republican supporters, including corporations and conservative groups bankrolled by the infamous Koch Brothers, did not dominate campaign spending in Minnesota this year.
With a week to go until Election Day, at least $135 million had been spent on Minnesota elections for state and federal offices this year based on disclosures from the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board and the Federal Election Commission. Spending on the state’s U.S. House and U.S. Senate races was one-fifth higher this year compared with 2014, even after accounting for Al Franken’s whopping $32 million haul four years ago. (The $14 million spent on this year’s special U.S. Senate race doesn’t account for 2018’s deluge.)
Democratic contributors — including individuals, parties and independent expenditure groups — outspent Republican contributors by more than half. In raw dollars, Democrats enjoyed a $70 million to $46 million advantage.
Time to question the myth that Republicans and conservatives dominate the money game.
No. 2: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to large sums of money flowing into elections from independent expenditure groups. Ignore the rhetoric about stopping campaign spending — both parties rely on independent expenditures. Nearly $6 out of every $10 spent to support Republicans running for Congress and DFLers running for state office came from independent expenditure groups.
Hidden political assassin — that’s the role played by independent expenditure groups. By law, these funds help candidates without any coordination or direction. This has been weaponized to strafe candidates with biting negative ads. Some 94 percent of the independent expenditures made to support GOP congressional candidates funded attack ads against their Democratic opponents. Democrats played the same game, with 56 percent of their independent funding attacking Republican candidates.
Here’s the political cover: Each party’s candidates in competitive races benefit from harsh negative ads while avoiding a political cost. Of course, all of us are the true victims as we face a barrage of hateful, misleading and cynical ads.
No. 3: Republicans are more skilled in leveraging their funding. The hidden political battle this fall was over control of the Minnesota House of Representatives. GOP supporters calculated that the DFL’s Tim Walz was likely to win the governor’s seat and strategically deployed funds toward retaining the Republican House majority.
But the GOP’s biggest advantage wasn’t in its $450,000 funding edge — it was in how it used money. There were 23 highly competitive statehouse races, and GOP candidates outspent their DFL counterparts in 70 percent of these battleground districts. In 12 of these 23 districts, GOP candidates enjoyed an advantage of $40,000 or more.
Even in the 15 districts that the DFL identified as vital pickup opportunities, GOP candidates spent more in 13 of them.
It appears that the GOP was more effective in targeting its funding to battleground districts while the DFL channeled more of its money to supporting safer incumbents.
No. 4: Our primary protection today against the flow of money into our elections is disclosure and the timely and accurate release of information to the public. Let voters see whom big money is supporting and allow them to factor that into whom they cast a ballot for.
“Houston, we have a problem,” to borrow a memorable phrase from the movie about the troubled Apollo 13 space mission.
Our research over the past four months revealed practical barriers to transparency. Do you want to know how much is being spent and by whom? Good luck.
Federal and state laws require those donating directly to a campaign to submit disclosures, but these are often incomplete, late or incorrect. More troubling, some of the groups making large independent expenditures do not have to disclose their donors, so voters don’t fully know who is funding negative or misleading attack ads. The message is clear: Obscuring timely, accurate information about money in campaigns is fine.
What are practical steps to prepare for the 2020 elections?
Complete and timely disclosure of campaign donations is a good starting point. But be alert: Both parties are skilled at the money game, so we can expect that neither party will make this a priority even if they issue reassuring news releases. Speak up and demand action to improve transparency.
Hold lawmakers accountable. Our reports document which groups are supporting lawmakers. Let’s put a spotlight on the decisions and votes of lawmakers while in office to make sure they don’t reward big money donors.
Lawrence R. Jacobs and Kathryn Pearson are professors at the University of Minnesota.