Six days before the midterm election, Alliance for a Better Minnesota released its seventh and final television ad against Scott Jensen.
The Democratic-aligned political fund had already spent months and more than $13 million targeting the Republican governor candidate with a steady stream of ads replaying his past remarks promising to ban abortion. Its last ad criticized his tax plan, for good measure.
The group's unyielding strategy against Jensen on abortion is now being given a hefty dose of the credit for his decisive defeat in the midterm election, one that allies and opponents alike say also laid the groundwork to deliver DFL-controlled state government in what historically should have been strong year for Republicans.
"People were particularly turned off by him saying it in his own words. That's what you saw in the ads," said ABM executive director Marissa Luna. "We knew that it was highly effective to pair that with the stories of those people who would be very negatively impacted by an abortion ban."
The result is the culmination of more than a decade of work behind the scenes from ABM, whose messaging strategy helped turn a two-decade drought for Democrats in the governor's office into a historic streak of victories. While little known to the broader public, ABM has become an unmatchable force in Minnesota politics, expected to more than double the spending this cycle from a handful of top Republican-allied campaign groups combined.
Minnesota Republicans fear they'll continue to be shut out of the governor's office until they can find an answer to ABM on the right.
"Republicans wouldn't be obsessed with trying to find an answer if they didn't do good work," said John Rouleau, executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a Republican-aligned political spending group. "They are smart folks and they have a lot of resources. That is a deadly combination in elections."
ABM was founded out of the same low point for Democrats that Republicans find themselves in now. The 2006 election had delivered the party's fifth loss in a row in the race for governor.
"There was a theory that we needed to do a better job on the progressive side of counteracting corporate money that was supporting Republican candidates and that we would have to work together to do that," said Carrie Lucking, who served as ABM's executive director from 2011 to 2014.
ABM was formed as an offshoot of the national group Progress Now, designed to collect resources and spend them on a highly researched messaging strategy. It gets most of its funding from allied PACs, which fundraise from unions and other traditional DFL donors, some with deep pockets like Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger.
ABM's first test case came in the 2010 midterm election, when it released an attack ad on GOP governor nominee Tom Emmer, then a state representative, who had sponsored legislation to soften some penalties for alcohol-related driving offenses.
ABM's early ad, released in July, connected that legislation with past drunken driving-related charges on Emmer's record through the eyes of a mother who lost her son in an unrelated accident with a drunken driver. Emmer narrowly lost the governor's race to DFLer Mark Dayton, even as Republicans swept control of the Legislature.
Two years later, ABM worked to flip the GOP-led Legislature to DFL control and spent two cycles attacking Republican governor nominee Jeff Johnson. Early in the 2018 governor's race, ABM targeted Tim Pawlenty, who was challenging Johnson for the GOP nomination in the primary. They viewed him as the tougher opponent and hoped to oust him before the general election.
Pawlenty lost the primary and Johnson was handily defeated in the 2018 midterm by then-DFL Congressman Tim Walz. That early targeting has become a hallmark of ABM's strategy, and sets it apart from other political funds that don't start spending until closer to Election Day.
"The stronger the headwind that your opponent is sailing into, the better your folks are going to do," said Lucking. "The current is actually harder for them to swim in based on the narrative we've created."
'No way he could recover'
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, DFL-aligned groups united on an aggressive messaging strategy attacking Republican candidates on abortion. ABM started putting out ads against the GOP field for governor in May and had abortion-related ads on the air against Jensen before he won the primary in August.
"That can be hard to accomplish with groups that maybe don't have the same agenda," said Luna. "But folks came together and saw this was an effective issue across the board."
Jensen's first ad — which didn't air until after Labor Day — tried to counter ABM's messaging by showing him holding his newborn grandchild and saying he wouldn't try to change abortion laws as governor.
But "there was really no way he could recover," said Tim Stanley, head of Planned Parenthood's campaign operation in the region. "Their ads set the stage for our action fund's massive field program to take advantage of the doubt that people had in their minds about Jensen."
Even when some polls showed Walz starting to break away with a clear lead in the race, they "didn't take their foot off the gas," said Rouleau. "That can be a hard sell. Nobody wants to buy a 10-point win."
ABM raised nearly $15.8 million to spend almost exclusively against Jensen, according to its final campaign finance report released before the general election. That number didn't include a late infusion of several million dollars from the national Democratic Governors Association.
By comparison, the top PAC on the Republican side, which was spending to influence the attorney general's race, raised $2 million with a late infusion of $500,000. Republicans either need to find funding to match ABM or they need to think about different messaging to counteract it, said Republican strategist Gregg Peppin.
"It's not always the person who spends the most who dominates the message battles," he noted, pointing back to Paul Wellstone's effective low-budget campaign. "We just need to go in with our eyes wide open and figure out how to deal with that."
ABM's work doesn't stop when the election is over, Luna said. It'll now switch gears to help develop messaging strategies around policy and debates at the Capitol, with the goal to make "Minnesota more progressive and further progressive policies."
With Democrats heading into complete control of government in January, Stanley said Planned Parenthood will partner with ABM to implement an outreach strategy as they push to codify abortion access into state law.
"They are instrumental to the progressive movement," he said. "They're really the straw that stirs that drink."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this story.