Bachmann-Graves race in 6th District full of spending

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • October 20, 2012 - 11:17 AM

Volunteers stuffed envelopes and worked the phone banks as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann circled the room, ready to jump in and make her pitch.

"Money isn't everything," said Bachmann, who raised $4.5 million for her re-election campaign between July and September -- more than Minnesota's seven other congressional races combined.

"Really, it's the personal touch. I would just take the phone and speak to people. I'd say 'Hi, this is Michele Bachmann.' I'd say, 'Could I please have your vote three weeks from today?'"

Money isn't everything, but for the candidates trying to hold or win congressional seats in Minnesota this year, it's money that they need to get their commercials on the air, their campaign literature into mailboxes and their message to the voters.

For Bachmann's opponent, DFLer Jim Graves, it took a million-dollar fundraising cycle of his own to show the national party that he could mount a serious challenge to a Republican incumbent like Bachmann, who has raised $11.3 million for her re-election campaign and spent $10 million this year.

"It's a phenomenal amount of money," said Graves, who raised $1 million for his own campaign last quarter. "But you don't need to spend $10-, $15-, $20 million to get the message out, and I think we're getting the message out."

When Graves works the phone banks in his own office, he makes this pitch: "I say, 'I'm running against Michele Bachmann, she's well funded and if you can help us get our message out in a small way, I'd appreciate it' ..."

"And I would certainly enjoy it if they would come along and make this country a little more civil, a little more common-sense based and a little bit better place to live," he said.

These days, running for Congress -- in Minnesota or anywhere else -- is a wealthy person's game.

"It either takes personal wealth or access to those with personal wealth," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign spending.

Graves, a hotel magnate, has personal wealth -- it's estimated at between $22 million and $111 million -- but perhaps not quite so much access to others who are rich. He poured $270,000 of his own money into the campaign in the third quarter. He could have self-funded the entire race out of his own pocket, but he said he didn't want it to turn into a contest of who could spend more. And he wanted his supporters "to have skin in the game."

Graves might have the money to match Bachmann dollar-for-dollar out of his own pocket, but it wasn't until he began raising serious money from outside donors that groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) took a hard look at the Sixth District race.

Earlier this week, the DCCC bumped the Graves-Bachmann contest into its "Red-to-Blue" category of races where Democratic challengers are thought to be making serious bids to unseat Republican incumbents. They cited Graves' fundraising as one of the reasons for the upgrade.

"Most self-funded candidates, at the end of the day, lose," Krumholz said.

As for Bachmann, most of her millions came in a drop at a time. The average donation in the third quarter was $45, raised through the nationwide network of conservative donors she built up over the years, first as a conservative celebrity in Congress and then during her presidential campaign.

At Bachmann's phone bank, Luke Leisner, a high school freshman from Andover, reached a Democrat on one of the 50 phone calls he placed around the district Tuesday night. Bachmann heard him talking to a woman about health care and rushed over.

Leisner gave the phone to Bachmann "and she started talking to her and now, I don't know, but that Democrat might have her vote," he said.

These days, the average congressional campaign is measured in millions. Krumholz, a University of Minnesota graduate, said that in 2010 it cost, on average, $1.4 million to run a campaign for the U.S. House and $10 million for the U.S. Senate.

The need to raise funds has left members of Congress with less time to do the jobs they were elected for, she said.

"They're complaining that they're spending more of their time chasing money," Krumholz said. "Instead of reading bills, they're dialing dollars or attending fundraisers." • 651-925-5049


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