DFLers and Republicans are locked in a fierce fundraising battle as they enter a crucial and high-stakes phase in their quest for the governor's office and control of the Minnesota House.

Minnesotans have already poured more than $1.4 million into the two races, offering an early peek at what is shaping up to be a fierce and costly campaign season.

Republicans are intent on breaking DFL control of the governor's office and the House, which could give the GOP, after two years as a powerless minority, a way to block their opponents' initiatives.

But those plans could be hindered by a state Republican Party that remains hobbled by more than $500,000 in debt, lackluster fundraising and just $26,000 in the bank.

DFLers outraised or have more in the bank than Republicans in nearly every instance, whether it is a direct party matchup or the fight for the House.

"It's a great starting point," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said.

Fresh from more than a year of one-party control in St. Paul, the House DFL caucus held a commanding lead in fundraising. It has raised $596,907 so far this year, with more than $1 million in the bank.

"I'm pleased with people's continued support of the direction we're moving in the state, and the numbers reflect that," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "There's a lot of folks out there that want us to continue to make progress."

House Republicans raised $219,100, with $618,175 in cash. . They vow to intensify their fundraising efforts as the legislative session ends and members are freed from restrictions against raising money during session.

Defining the governor's race

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who is leading the effort to retake the House, said that with the liberal policies DFLers have promoted, "they're going to need a lot of resources." The Crown Republican vowed that fundraising will be "better than it ever has been in the past."

Early money is already starting to reshuffle the dynamics in the governor's race. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has raised $195,868 — a modest start for an incumbent governor, but the department store heir has deep pockets and has proved willing to contribute heavily to his previous races.

A leading GOP rival, Orono businessman Scott Honour, managed to outraise Dayton, netting more than $200,000 in the first quarter of 2014. Honour gave his fundraising another bump with a personal loan of $50,000.

Dayton has been recuperating from hip surgery at the governor's residence in a body cast for several weeks, limiting his ability to raise money in person. Even so, Dayton has cash on hand of $733,114 — well more than the entire six-candidate GOP field has in the bank.

Dayton downplayed the significance of the early numbers.

"Everybody's constrained in the same way," he said Tuesday. "During the legislative session, it puts a damper on everybody's fundraising."

Dayton is touting a string of legislative victories, like the minimum-wage increase and a new tax-relief measure. Republicans are hammering him over the fumbled rollout of MNsure, the state's health insurance exchange.

Honour had the best quarter financially, raising substantially more than other Republican candidates. He did not make himself available for comment Tuesday.

How other Republicans did

GOP candidate Kurt Zellers, a Republican House member from Maple Grove and a former House speaker, was the second-best fundraiser, taking in $91,652. His spending considerably outstripped his contributions. He burned through nearly a third of his cash cushion and now has less than $80,000 on hand.

"Obviously with fundraising you're never satisfied, and that's the nature of the business — there are never enough donors and never enough money," Zellers, a six-term legislator who has been on the Minnesota political scene for nearly 20 years. "But we're competitive with the rest of the field and notoriously, January, February and March are just tough, tough months to raise money."

Dave Thompson, a state senator from Lakeville, came in third among Dayton's Republican challengers with $67,316 in contributions. He has $37,695 in cash on hand. Thompson said he is focused on winning over GOP activists and acknowledges that he lacks a solid list of GOP donors.

"I have stated from the day that I got into this campaign that I would be building a grass-roots campaign, win over delegates, win over the general public, and that the money would follow," Thompson said. "I believe that ultimately, people will support the candidates that they believe have the right message."

Marty Seifert, a former GOP House minority leader from Marshall, ended March raising $64,000 for the year, leaving him with $139,082 in the bank. Seifert has hired a professional fundraiser who worked for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"You can raise a billion dollars, but if you blow it all you have nothing to show for it," Seifert said. "The key number is with being strategic and frugal."

Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, raised only $32,000. Johnson said that he spent the past three months focused solely on delegate outreach and that he will continue to do so in the weeks running up to the state party convention. About half the money he raised, he said, was in one day.

"I do expect that money will loosen up considerably after the endorsement," he said.

Dayton dipped into his personal fortune to finance a good share of his first gubernatorial run and is still owed about $3.8 million, money he may never get back. Dayton did not say whether he would put his own money into the campaign again.

"I haven't put any in so far, and I haven't made a final decision one way or the other," he said Tuesday.

Dayton is still weighing whether to qualify for a public subsidy, which he can do if he contributes less than $20,000 of his own money.

"The way I see it, it's a couple of weeks until the campaign finance board comes out with their estimate of how much money candidates will receive this year. That's a factor," he said. "It's something we're considering but haven't decided yet."

GOP dealing with debt

The report also showed that the Republican Party of Minnesota remains a long way from digging out of debt brought on by runaway spending leading up to the 2010 elections. Former party chairman Tony Sutton resigned after party officials discovered mountains of previously unreported debt. At one point, the party was nearly evicted from its headquarters near the Capitol and eventually wound up decamping for cheaper quarters in Minneapolis.

The Republican Party raised $214,491 in the first three months of the year but spent nearly three times that — more than $596,000. Coming into a make-or-break election cycle, it has $26,689 in the bank and debt of more than $547,000.

GOP chairman Keith Downey did not return a call to his cellphone.

The state DFL raised $685,449 in the first quarter and has $211,589 cash on hand. It has debt of about $24,000.

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

baird.helgeson@startribune.com 651-925-5044

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