Money is the lifeblood of politics, and DFL candidates for governor are engaged in some public bloodletting to get it.

When candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher recently got caught cutting corners to collect some cash, it exposed fierce competition in a crowded field to tap reliable party donors.

And for DFLers, few donors have become more reliable than the state's tribal casinos.

Since 1998, tribal casino interests have given more than $4 million in political contributions -- the vast majority of it to DFLers. The money has been credited by some with helping preserve a tribal monopoly on casino gambling.

Republicans have not benefited from the same level of largesse, but they haven't been shut out, either. GOP politicians, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have received much smaller donations from the tribes, as well as from the horse racing industry and taverns that would like a piece of the slot-machine action.

Gambling proceeds of all stripes could be particularly influential in 2010, when racetrack owners attempt to bring slots to Canterbury Park and Running Aces Harness Track. A new group representing horse owners says it has raised $250,000 to push for so-called racinos and hired soon-to-be-former Sen. Minority Leader Dick Day as spokesman. Tribal casinos are already gearing up to fight off the proposal.

Gambling industry contributions are figuring in the fight for cash by DFL gubernatorial candidates, as the flap over Kelliher's fundraising tactics demonstrates.

Under the law, gubernatorial candidates can't accept more than $500 from a single contributor. But Kelliher urged some donors who would have exceeded that level to give money to the DFL Party, which intended to use it to help her pay for voter research.

One of those donors was Ted Grindal, a lobbyist for the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa, which owns Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley. Since 1998, Grindal has contributed $140,000 himself to candidates and political causes, including a political action committee (PAC) run by his law firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen of Minneapolis.

Besides Grindal's political contributions, his firm's PAC has given about $550,000 to candidates and causes, including many Republicans.

The Mille Lacs band's own political committee gave slightly more than $1 million in political contributions from 1998 through 2008, more than 80 percent to Democrats.

The Shakopee Mdewakan-ton Dakota Community, owners of Mystic Lake Casino, made nearly $1.4 million in political contributions during the same period, more than 85 percent to DFLers.

Three of the remaining nine Indian bands spent another $1.5 million together. They are the Prairie Island Dakota, owners of Treasure Island Casino; the Lower Sioux, owners of Jackpot Junction, and the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, owners of Black Bear Casino.

Rival DFL gubernatorial candidate Tom Rukavina, a legislator from Virginia, Minn., said Kelliher gained an unfair advantage with the financing arrangement. The DFL has since scrapped the arrangement and the state campaign finance board is considering a GOP request for an investigation.

Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, said complaints about the arrangement have less to do with legalities than with who will get money from casinos and other major sources.

"If any of the candidates in a crowded field can get a strategic advantage in getting that money, which seems [Kelliher] has now that she's lined up Grindal, that's going to produce a flurry of criticisms from other candidates."

Because he's spread so much money around, it wasn't certain that Grindal would side with Kelliher. In 2008, he gave $500 each to the gubernatorial campaigns of Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook; Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and former Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins. Grindal said he also contributed money this year to Bakk, Rukavina, DFLer Matt Entenza and Kelliher.

"I'm a Democrat -- I don't try to hide that," Grindal said.

But the $1,000 that he gave recently to the DFL Party at Kelliher's urging signaled a shift in his support.

"I don't plan on donating to any other candidates than Kelliher from this point going forward," Grindal said.

Rukavina finds himself at odds with the tribes because he wants slot machines in taverns, although he does line up with them in opposing metro-area racinos.

"I'm sure as hell not going to support a state casino that's going to lose jobs in rural Minnesota ... to put jobs in the metro area," Rukavina said.

Thissen isn't taking Grindal's decision hard.

"There are a lot of other contributors of Ted's stature and they are giving to other candidates," Thissen said, adding that he's gotten financial support from other members of Grindal's law firm.

The size of the DFL gubernatorial field -- 11 candidates at last count -- could dilute Kelliher's appeal to lobbyists as speaker of the Minnesota House, which gives her exceptional power over legislation.

"The natural advantage the speaker would have in this competition for dollars is diminished a bit because it's such an intense and open battle for the endorsement," said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. "The donors ... want to be on the winning side."

Money to go around

Grindal said he never directed that the $1,000 check he wrote to the party be used for Kelliher's voter research.

"There may have been other ways they were talking to people about how the money was going to be used," he said. "In the end, before I wrote the check, I said, 'This is going to be used by the party for whatever they want.' I said that to the Kelliher campaign."

He said Minnesota's $500 limit on contributions to a gubernatorial candidate prompts candidates to find circuitous ways to raise money.

"It's created a system that is more aggressive," Grindal said. "That's become a pretty common business."

Jacobs agreed, saying the limits should be raised to $1,000 or more. Low limits, he said, work to the advantage of wealthy candidates -- such as Entenza and Mark Dayton -- who can finance their campaigns with fewer contributions.

"It's going to become increasingly the case that the self-financed candidates are going to have tremendous, perhaps overwhelming, advantage," Jacobs said.

Pat Doyle • 661-222-1210