Will DFL governor's primary pivot on TV ads?

In what is shaping up as the costliest gubernatorial primary in recent memory, millionaires Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton have already poured about $2 million into TV ads; DFL endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher lags far behind.

Matt Entenza

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While DFL gubernatorial candidates Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza blitz TV with ads, DFL endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher recently went door-to-door, showing prospective voters her ad on an iPhone.

In what is shaping up as the costliest gubernatorial primary in recent memory, millionaires Entenza and Dayton have already poured about $2 million into TV ads from Minneapolis to Mankato to Duluth.

Kelliher, with no personal fortune but a powerful party endorsement, trails far behind with just $80,000 in TV ads -- a small fraction of what her rivals have spent.

Running statewide for the first time, Kelliher began airing her first TV spot on Tuesday. Over the weekend her supporters aired the ad at house parties across the state, along with Kelliher's videotaped plea for cash to keep the ad on the air.

With less than a month until the Aug. 10 primary, the ad buys offer a peek at the financial prowess of the campaigns and a telling glimpse into their strategies.

The clearest message so far: Kelliher can't come close to the monetary firepower of her competitors.

From the start, Kelliher has said she would not get into a spending war with her wealthy rivals. Instead, she has planned a surgical ground offensive, meeting voters one-on-one, in person or over the phone.

Conventional wisdom in Minnesota once held that money spent on TV during the sleepy summer months was largely wasted. But with a first-ever summer primary looming, Dayton and Entenza are betting their on-air investments will pay off. The question for Kelliher? Can her low-profile strategy compete, or will she get swamped by the massive media presence of her rivals?

'We have the resources'

Kelliher insists the campaign has the resources it needs. In a pep talk to supporters before her weekend door-knocking stint, Kelliher said the campaign had reached an important milestone -- the million-dollar mark. "That is a hundred thousand dollars ahead of the previous endorsed DFL candidate for governor four years ago," she said to volunteers as they cheered and clapped.

Over the weekend, Kelliher volunteers fanned out to 84 locations around the state to reach more than 60,000 voters by phone or in person -- the single largest outreach effort of the campaign.

Scott Perreault, a Minneapolis based political ad consultant, said Kelliher's campaign runs the risk of being too low-profile. While she is speaker of the Minnesota House, Kelliher is far from a household name outside the Capitol. "Is it a strategy to not have enough money and not promote yourself? I don't think so," he said.

Tina Smith, campaign manager for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's failed bid for DFL endorsement in the governor's race, said Kelliher's party endorsement came with advantages, but no guarantees.

"The real question is what campaigns choose to do with the resources they have," said Smith, who will host an upcoming fundraiser for Kelliher. "TV doesn't win elections. What wins is pretty simple: Campaigns need to identify who is likely to vote on Aug. 10, persuade them with a strong, compelling message and then get them out to vote."

Different needs

Other advertising experts say that with two millionaires duking it out on the airwaves, Kelliher should not waste money getting lost in the blur.

The three candidates, they said, each need something different from TV advertising.

For Entenza, a former House minority leader, TV ads can raise his profile quickly and get his message out across the state. Dayton, a department store heir with 30 years in public service, needs to remind Minnesotans who he is and what he's done for the state. Kelliher needs to get on the air to reaffirm that her campaign is big-time.

"Kelliher is coming on a little bit late, but was smart to hold her money," said Lee Lynch, co-founder of ad agency Carmichael Lynch Inc.

But Dayton and Entenza aren't relying on TV alone.

Dayton is endorsed by AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, one of the state's largest and most politically active unions, and the United Steelworkers, which represents 21,000 active and retired members. The unions could give Dayton a formidable ground operation.

Katharine Tinucci, a Dayton spokeswoman, said ads are a "powerful tool" for the campaign and an effective one in spreading Dayton's "tax the rich" message -- the focal point of several spots.

"That's something that we've gotten a lot of response to," she said. "We know more people are seeing it because more people are writing to us and wanting to know more."

Dayton's campaign has bought nearly $800,000 in TV ads in the Twin Cities and more in the rest of Minnesota. Kelliher has spent $61,000 in the Twin Cities and the remainder in the rest of the state.

Entenza leads the field in ad buys, spending more than $1 million on network and cable in the Twin Cities market, and additional unknown amounts in Duluth and western and southern Minnesota. Entenza also has a small army of 40 paid staffers coordinating his ground operations statewide.

"People didn't really know who [Entenza] was so we had to use a lot of air early on to get his name recognition up," said Jeremy Drucker, an Entenza spokesman. "So when that ground game does stop by -- when you get that door knock, when you get that phone call, when you get that canvass, when you meet him at an event -- you're like, 'I know you, you're not a stranger.'"

DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez said he expects Entenza and Dayton to spend heavily on TV but insists summer TV ads will have little impact on voters who haven't plugged into campaigns.

"We always planned to run a good ground game, and we've done that," Melendez said, noting that Kelliher's on-air presence will intensify in the closing weeks before the primary.

"Dayton and Entenza have a very different strategy, of spending a lot of money," he said. "Margaret has a strategy of reaching out and personally connecting with many, many voters. We'll see who wins."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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