Minnesota mega-donors pour money into 2014 elections

Rich donors’ huge cash influx comes as courts shred restrictions on giving.

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Alida Rockefeller Messinger

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Big-dollar donors, free to give as much as they want to Minnesota’s parties and political action committees, are pouring on the cash in advance of this year’s election.

More than $4 out of every $10 that individuals have contributed to state politics since 2013 comes from the deep pockets of those who gave $5,000 or more. While parties like to tout the number of small donors they have as testament to their broad appeal, a Star Tribune analysis shows that it’s the well-off on whom they depend.

At least 30 percent of all Democratic cash for the state party and its affiliates comes from people who give more than $5,000. For Republicans, the figure is even higher — 40 percent of their money has come from high-dollar donors since they started fundraising for 2014.

Those donations give wealthy Minnesotans an outsized role in shaping the partisan fights for power. The Star Tribune found that mega-donors are far more likely to be older and live in the Twin Cities suburbs than the voters who cast ballots in elections.

The massive influx of cash is set against a landscape of courts that have been moving to further loosen the rules on how much big donors can give and when. A federal court in Minnesota last week lifted a cap on how much large-dollar donors can give to Minnesota candidates.

“You are tilting the scales [to] fewer and fewer people having influence over the political process,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

But Martin and the DFL have benefited from those tipped scales.

Among Minnesota political heavyweights, one fundraiser stands out: Alida Messinger. A Rockefeller heir and Gov. Mark Dayton’s ex-wife, Messinger has already pumped nearly $1 million into the 2014 contest. That is nearly three times as much as any other individual political donor and keeps her on pace with her 2012 giving. In that election, she donated about $3 million.

But the big fish also are returning to the Minnesota Republican Party committees. The state party, which had so struggled with finances that it was nearly evicted from its headquarters a few years ago, and its legislative partners have cobbled together enough high-dollar donors to compete with Messinger’s massive resources.

“I think we have effectively restructured and rebuilt confidence,” said Republican Party Chair Keith Downey.

The big 14

For the state Republican Party, nearly 60 percent of the $1.3 million it has reported raising since 2013 came from just 14 donors. The largest among them is Joan Cummins, wife of Plymouth-based Primera Technology founder Bob Cummins. Joan Cummins has given the party $185,000 since 2013, with the first check arriving days after Downey was elected. She and her husband have given an additional $166,000. That cash was spread among Republicans’ Senate campaign committees, the conservative Freedom Club and GOP candidates across the state.

Not far behind Cummins’ party giving are Bill and Tani Austin, longtime contributors to Republican politics. Together, they have supplied nearly $350,000 to GOP causes since 2013. Of that, the state party and the Freedom Club, an independent spending group largely funded by wealthy donors, each received about $150,000.

On the GOP list, Stanley Hubbard, the head of Hubbard Broadcasting, fills out the top three. He has given the state party $135,000 so far and contributed another $171,000 to other Minnesota political committees.

Fewer calls, bigger haul

In part because of Messinger’s big checks, Martin had to make fewer calls to cull his cash. For the DFL state committee, just 11 donors provided nearly $1 million, or 35 percent of the money the party has raised so far. Nearly $700,000 of that came from Messinger. She also gave $250,000 to the DFL House’s campaign arm to help keep the Legislature in DFL hands and ponied up $4,000 to her ex-husband, Dayton.

Second only to Messinger in the DFL-giving ranks was Vance Opperman, president of Key Investments and former president of Thompson Reuters. He has given the state party $85,000, according to public documents, but has been more generous with legislative campaigns. Of the nearly $400,000 he has given since last year, $160,000 has gone to the DFL House and Senate committees. The 2014 Fund and WIN Minnesota — independent committees that support Democrats — received another $100,000.

Changing landscape

The huge cash influx from Minnesota mega-donors comes at a time when courts are shredding restrictions.

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