Minnesota campaign donations shifting to big bucks

The state’s suspension of refunds for small-dollar contributions is seen as one of the primary reasons.

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Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature during his 2014 State of the State address.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Small-dollar donors have been turning away from giving to Minnesota legislative campaigns, and big money donors are taking their place.

As recently as 2008, more than 85 percent of House candidates’ campaign donations came from people who gave no more than a few hundred dollars, according to a Star Tribune analysis. By 2012 election, that figure had dropped to just over two-thirds, with those giving more than $200 making up nearly a third of all legislative donations.

The cost of legislative campaigns and sway of outside groups is rising, and recent court decisions have allowed large donors to wield even greater influence in all races. The new pattern means the 2014 battle for the Minnesota House could move even further from grass-roots activists, as candidates rely more heavily on a select few wealthy donors.

Longtime South St. Paul Rep. Joe Atkins in 2009 raised nearly 400 contributions from donors who gave $50 or less — more than any other candidate that year.

But like the rest of his legislative colleagues, Atkins’ contributors of modest means dropped off precipitously in recent years. In 2008, small donors made up more than 80 percent of his total individual contributions. By 2012, that figure had dropped to 66 percent.

The trend lines are less clear in the governor’s race, but that premier contest also has been drawing cash largely from big-dollar givers. Of the $3 million given to the remaining 2014 gubernatorial candidates so far, just 25 percent came from small-dollar donors. Nearly 60 percent came from donors who gave $1,000 or more.

While most candidates and campaigns want to ensure their coffers are full enough to wage competitive campaigns no matter where the dollars come from, the small-dollar donors are of special value because they still make up most of legislative candidates’ cash.

“As a leader of the caucus, I always want to have buy-in from my team, and I think it’s the same from donors,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Democrats and Republicans say that racking up dozens of small-dollar donations may take more effort than getting one $1,000 check, but is worthwhile.

“It pays dividends in the long term,” said Zach Rodvold, the House DFL campaign director. “For the most part, those folks stay with you year to year and cycle to cycle.”

And if candidates do get dozens of $5 or $10 dollar contributions, those donors often become surrogates for the candidates. They talk the candidates up to their friends and neighbors to make sure their investment pays off.

With the rise of Internet solicitations for national and statewide campaigns, even small donors have more places to park their political money — one cause for the decline in modest donations. In addition, a state program that reimburses some small donations blinked off during the state’s budget crunch and was restored only last July.

A prolonged economic recession also took its toll on nonessential spending such as campaign donations. Atkins said during the past several years when he asked for donations, he sometimes got notes from would-be contributors saying they just could not afford to give.

“I think the economy was hardest on people who made less as opposed to people who have made more,” he said.

The effect has been evident in the past three election cycles — 2008, 2010 and 2012 — among Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate candidates, with lower-dollar donors sliding away.

The Star Tribune found that among House members who campaigned in each of the past three elections, the most dramatic fall was among small donations to rural members. In 2008, rural House candidates received nearly 90 percent of their campaign cash from people who gave less than $200. By 2012, that percentage had fallen to just above 70 percent. For metro area candidates, who got less from the small-dollar donors in 2008, the slide was less extreme.

“If you are in an affluent suburban district it is easier to get $1,000 checks,” said Rodvold, of the DFL. “I think the candidates raise the resources necessary to run in their district.”

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