Star Tribune exclusive: A new analysis digs into the piles of cash poured into every race for the past decade.
Minnesota legislative races, long low-dollar affairs, have exploded into six-figure contests, with campaign spending for House and Senate seats doubling over the past decade.
Examining data from every legislative race for that period, the Star Tribune found that candidates, parties and political action committees spent nearly $24 million on Minnesota’s House and Senate races in 2012. In 2002, that figure was less than $12 million.
Until 2012, only two legislative races — both in 2006 — had ever topped $500,000 in Minnesota for election spending. Last year, nine legislative races passed that milestone, while another 29 came in at more than $200,000.
In Minnesota and across the nation, legislative races are shattering all previous spending records as political groups pool their cash and bring their best data, staffing and technical resources to bear in statehouse districts.
Much of that is driven not by the candidates, but by political action committees and parties.
The choice for political interests is clear: They can spend millions on high-stakes congressional races, win a few seats and still see Congress mired in gridlock. Spend those millions on legislative contests, and they can get quick change and massive state-by-state results.
Partly because of this shift in strategy, more state Capitols are controlled by a single party than at any time in modern history.
“You can take that same amount of money and you can, literally, as we saw here in Minnesota, flip entire legislatures in one election cycle,” said Keith Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
Downey is a living example of what can happen.
A two-term House member, Downey decided to try for the state Senate in 2012. His race against first-time DFL candidate Melisa Franzen became the most expensive legislative race in state history, totaling $870,000. Downey and Franzen each spent a little over $110,000. But outside groups turned the contest — in which 50,000 votes were cast — into a monster race. Independent expenditures to defeat Downey ran more than $300,000 — nearly twice what interest groups spent against Franzen.
After he lost, Downey took over as head of the state GOP.
As the two parties fight for control of the House and Senate, the stakes have risen in every district with the potential to swing to the other side.
A House race that cost, on average, $50,000 in 2002 now costs $91,000, with many seeing far more spending. By last year, spending for the average Senate seat topped $171,000, up from $78,000 a decade ago, for an increase of more than 100 percent.
The 2012 legislative election marked the first time that independent spending by outside groups — parties and political action committees — outstripped spending by the men and women on the ballot, according to the Star Tribune analysis of state campaign finance reports.
Evidence of the changing nature of legislative races hit first-time candidate Zach Dorholt late last year, as the St. Cloud DFLer prepared to “zombie out” after a long day of campaigning by watching a cable showing of the science fiction movie “Predator.”
Suddenly, an attack ad blared out from his TV. About him.
“I never in my life expected to see not only TV ads for or against a House candidate but for myself,” said Dorholt. He toppled Republican Rep. King Banaian last year in what became the state’s most expensive House race.