All politics is local? Not in U.S. Senate race

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2008 - 10:12 PM

Minnesota's three major candidates are getting a greater share of contributions from out of state than did candidates in 2002 and '06.

More so than in recent elections, Minnesota's U.S. Senate race is being financed by people who don't live in Minnesota.

Together, the three major candidates get a much greater share of their contributions from out-of-state residents than did Senate candidates in 2002 and 2006.

It's a reflection of the unusual celebrity drawing power of DFLer Al Franken and the power of incumbency for Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. But it also is a sign of what some observers say is the nationalization of state politics.

"Because the agenda and the institutions have become more partisan, people understand that they have a stake in elections that are outside their own," said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C.

"Lobbyists have always understood it," Malbin said. "Now average people understand that."

Some think outsider money could give non-Minnesotans a bigger say in setting the agenda for the Minnesota Senate races, to the detriment of Minnesota voter preferences and issues.

"If we still think that senators are supposed to represent their home state, that causes a problem," said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

Out-of-state donations make up 63 percent of the total individual funds raised by Coleman, Franken and DFLer Mike Ciresi. The figures are based on itemized reports to the Federal Election Commission of contributions exceeding $200 during the first three quarters of 2007.

In the 2006 Senate race, less than 40 percent of all such contributions received by Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Mark Kennedy were donated by people living in other states.

In 2002, incumbent Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash during the final weeks of the campaign, fellow Democrat Walter Mondale and Coleman raised 51 percent of their individual contributions from out-of-state residents.

The significance of out-of-state money grew for most candidates in the final months of the 2002 and 2006 Senate campaigns, and that pattern could repeat in 2008, if the race is close.

So far, Franken far outpaces the field in outsider contributions, with 77 percent of his individual donations coming from non-Minnesotans. Coleman follows with 60 percent. In this election cycle, Ciresi has received 38 percent of his individual contributions from outside Minnesota.

"Franken's numbers for a challenger are extraordinary," Malbin said. "Normally you'd expect a challenger to build up with a home base and then prove himself, and after the race becomes competitive then that national money starts coming. This is different. This is somebody with a national reputation building on a national reputation."

Franken's entertainment industry connections have helped, with actor Tom Hanks, film director Rob Reiner and others among donors. One-fourth of the value of personal contributions to the Franken campaign has come from Californians -- exceeding the total donations from Minnesotans. Beverly Hills ZIP codes alone account for 54 contributions.

But Franken's Senate campaign has tapped a wider, national constituency upset with the political right.

Mark Stein and his wife, Carol Baker, of Haverford, Pa., gave $500 to the Franken campaign in August. Their strong feelings about major national issues drew them to his candidacy.

"It was the election of 2004 and the aftermath that made us political," Stein said. "We hadn't really been involved in the past. We feel that the current administration has really made a mess of things, both domestically and internationally. A more balanced and forward-thinking Congress would be helpful."

They also were attracted to Franken's attack on conservatives in his book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

Coleman, like other incumbents, counts on lobbyists and other Washington area interests for help. Residents of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia contributed about 7 percent of the money he has raised from individuals.

Larger national issues

Like Franken, some of Coleman's out-of-state support comes from people concerned about larger national issues.

"Being conservative ... we would like to see more people in Congress who really are fiscally conservative," said Craig Butterfield, 74, of Colorado Springs, a retired engineer who gave Coleman $400. "If we can't get our spending under control, we won't be able to afford anything. It doesn't matter where it is."

Controversial single issues can also motivate individuals to get involved in other states' races. Butterfield said he and his wife "do not believe in abortion, and we believe Coleman is along that line."

Butterfield said he learned about the Coleman campaign from a mailing. He has given to other conservative causes over the years, including RightMarch.com, a national political action committee (PAC) set up to oppose "the socialist wannabes at MoveOn.org."

The Federal Election Commission counts individual contributions separately from money that PACS give to the campaigns. Coleman had received more than $1 million during the first three quarters of 2007 from PACs, compared to about $50,000 for Franken.

Unofficial reports from the fourth quarter of 2007 show that Franken raised $7 million and Coleman raised $6.6 million for the year. But Coleman spent less money than Franken, who had an expensive telemarketing drive, and has about twice as much cash on hand.

Neither Coleman, Franken nor Ciresi would discuss the impact on their campaigns of contributions from people living in other states.

Franken spokesman Andy Barr said: "We want to make sure we have the ability to compete ... when everyone is up on TV."

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said: "It takes an enormous and sometimes obnoxious amount of money to run for statewide office."

Ciresi spokeswoman Leslie Sandberg cited polls last year to argue that her candidate is competitive with Franken in the race for the DFL nomination despite raising far less money.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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