The candidates might play nice, but interest groups spend big to sling nasty accusations.
So far the three men vying to be Minnesota's next governor have been relentlessly civil, staying far up on the high ground, where mud-flinging campaign attacks won't soil their suits.
But on another level, corporations and unions are sinking millions of dollars into groups intent on framing DFLer Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and the Independence Party's Tom Horner in a less flattering light.
On Wednesday Minnesota's Future, a group funded by the Republican Governors Association, launched an ad accusing Dayton of having once wrongly fired a staffer. Union-backed Alliance for a Better Minnesota has swamped airwaves with ads critical of Emmer and sent out thousands of mailers alluding to a no-bid government contract Horner's firm obtained after the I-35 bridge collapse. Corporate-supported MN Forward has used TV ads, billboard advertising, social media and even a petition drive outside Target Field to drive home its points.
These big-spending surrogates have reshaped the 2010 governor's race, allowing candidates to mount relatively low-profile, high-image efforts while the interest groups engage in the most expensive, damaging and potentially risky tactics of the campaign.
"They've really been there to do the dirty work of the campaigns, the work the campaign don't want to do," said Mike Dean, executive director for the campaign watchdog group, Common Cause Minnesota.
Campaign-finance reports show that the three groups have outraised and outspent the candidates themselves, gathering in more than $8 million. Much of the largesse is due largely to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that allows businesses to give freely to organizations that support or oppose candidates.
'The coming-out year'
"This year is really the coming-out year for these independent groups, and I think it's only going to play a bigger role in coming years," said Ken Martin, with WIN Minnesota Political Action Fund. The fund has been a major contributor to Alliance, which supports Dayton. On Tuesday, WIN donated $340,000 to Alliance in a single day -- one in a string of donations the group has made.
Even before the DFL primary decided who would face Emmer, Alliance began running an ad featuring Emmer's two decades-old DWI charges and narrated by a mother whose son was killed by a drunken driver. In the ad, the woman criticizes Emmer for what critics say was his effort to ease drunken driving laws in the Legislature. Alliance has said it will spend $650,000 to rerun the spot in the remaining days of the campaign.
Noting that Dayton has held a steady lead over Emmer in the polls, "I think there's no doubt the work we did resonated with voters," Martin said. "We've effectively defined him [Emmer] as a candidate and he's been trying to define himself in that context ever sense."
Business punches back
Businesses have taken advantage of their newfound freedom to create groups like MN Forward, which was launched by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership. MN Forward and Minnesota's Future, which back Emmer, have spent more than $2 million on television ads that jab hard at Dayton. One anti-tax ad features what appears to be Dayton's hand taking candy from children trick-or-treating; another shows babies and toddlers sobbing at Dayton's budget plan.
"What a group like MN Forward does is focus very specifically on an issue and idea that we think the public needs to be aware of," said Brian McClung, who stepped down as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff to lead MN Forward. "Job providers around Minneota are extremely concerned about Mark Dayton's multibillion-dollar tax plan."
McClung said most campaigns have watched how outside groups work over the years and learned how to customize their efforts, even though it's illegal for the groups to collude with the campaigns.
"The candidates have tailored their campaigns to be as positive as they can," McClung said. "If you're a candidate and you have the option to stay positive, you'll take it."
Dayton's tag line on ads, for instance, is "Dayton for a Better Minnesota," an echo of the name of the group supporting him, Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Voters occasionally call to praise -- or complain about -- ads, said Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci. "I have to explain them it was definitely not ours."
These outside political groups often rely on rigorous polling to seize on issues and concerns that they believe will lead to the desired outcome.
Tinucci said Dayton's campaign will run two "very positive ads" in the closing days before the election. The ad running now portrays him as "the only candidate who won't raise taxes on the middle class," while creating jobs. A final ad in the last days of the campaign will feature Dayton talking to voters about Minnesota values.
The Emmer camp will follow the same playbook. On Wednesday it began airing an ad on Emmer as a "jobs governor" who will hold down taxes. "We've run a positive campaign focused on government living within its means and creating jobs for Minnesotans," said Carl Kuhl, an Emmer spokesman. "And that is the theme we are going to stick with."
Horner's campaign finds itself in a different position. Trailing badly in the polls, Horner has been spared the most damaging blows from outside groups. But the Independence Party also lacks a stable of cash-rich surrogates to step in and draw stark contrasts with rivals.
"It hurts us," said Matt Lewis, a Horner spokesman.
For those longing for a quieter time in Minnesota politics, many campaign watchers don't see an end to various groups fighting for -- and paying for -- the right to be heard.
Said Sutton: "Freedom is a powerful thing, and if people can express their free speech rights, I think they will."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288