Well-off candidates, early primaries and new laws mean the battle has already begun.
As DFL gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza walked through an assisted-living center near University Avenue, he enjoyed a little something that has been hard for him to come by -- name recognition.
"You look better in person than you do on TV," said one woman. Another also recognized Entenza from his ads, but he won't have the airwaves to himself for long.
The state's earliest primary, a pair of well-heeled candidates and recent changes in campaign laws are posing a triple threat to Minnesota voters this summer, who will face a wave of political ads between now and the Aug. 10 primary.
Entenza is already on his third set of ads and DFL rival Mark Dayton started his TV campaign on Monday. Endorsed DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher is still attempting to raise money to keep pace with her opponents.
"You have dramatic potential for an explosion of money being spent," said David Schultz, a political expert and professor at Hamline University.
Entenza and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, both millionaires, have been most aggressive in buying ad slots to make their faces known to Minnesotans. Since May, Entenza has racked up $850,000 on TV time across the state. Throw in the expense of the glossy, multi-page mailers he has been sending and the former legislator is close to cracking $1 million, with two months to go till the primary. Dayton has bought $350,000 in air time just this month in the Twin Cities alone.
A longtime public figure with field-leading name recognition, Dayton will begin his ad campaign with an unusually long, 60-second spot -- the first in a series.
"We want to reintroduce Minnesotans to Mark and remind people who he is and what he's done for Minnesotans," said Katharine Tinucci, a Dayton spokeswoman.
Dayton says he won't spend as much as he has in the past, because of recession losses and the wallet-draining costs of previous campaigns.
But, he said, "It will be enough to get my message out there and not to overload people in the summer weeks."
When Dayton made a successful run for U.S. Senate in 2000, he blitzed the airwaves all summer, obliterating his primary opponents.
Mike Donilon, an adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and numerous other big-name Democrats, crafted those spots and will be back for the 2010 race.
In her pleas for money to break onto the airwaves, Kelliher consistently notes that she is up against deep-pocketed candidates. She has hired Murphy Putnam Media, the company that produced campaign ads for President Obama, to create her TV spots. Kelliher's team has scheduled shoots, but has not said when the commercials might air.
The DFL candidates have not said how much they intend to spend, but a budget-busting primary could leave the eventual nominee with depleted funds just as he or she gears up for the general election. Dayton and Entenza could draw on their personal fortunes, but Kelliher would be left to rely heavily on donors eager to give to the party's nominee.
The feel is a little more low-key on the GOP side, where Republican-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer lacks a serious primary challenger. His campaign declined to release its advertising strategy. Independence Party endorsed candidate Tom Horner, a public-relations executive, is still formulating his advertising plans. The campaign doesn't plan to launch a major ad offensive until after the primary, said campaign manager Stephen Imholte. "The basic rule of thumb is save it all for the end," he said.
Businesses may get involved
Candidates won't be the only ones figuring out advertising strategies. A U.S. Supreme Court decision this year will make 2010 the first election cycle in which corporations can spend freely on ads for the candidate of their choice.
"We certainly are looking at all of our options, but it's likely we will be engaged in multiple campaigns," said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a business advocacy group. "Once the primary is over, that's when you'll see different groups getting involved."
Television can play an important role for candidates, particularly for relatively unknown candidates such as Entenza, experts said. For them, televised ads are a good, albeit expensive, way to introduce themselves to voters and articulate their vision for the state.
While candidates are exploring other media -- Horner ads are a near constant presence on some websites -- television remains a benchmark.
"Television still establishes you as legitimate," said Mike Zipko, a principal with St. Paul public relations company Goff & Howard. "It's the threshold that shows people you are a real candidate and a real campaign."
But candidates must be cautious not to annoy and pester residents during the summer months, when families are more concerned with vacations than with who wants the keys to the Capitol, Zipko said. Still, candidates need to get out their message and separate themselves from opponents.
Entenza said he ran TV ads for about five weeks before he got a notable bump in name ID. But when residents at the assisted-living center recognized him, Entenza took that as a sign of money well spent.
"It takes a lot of TV before anybody notices," he said.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288