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."

State subsidies

Early signs are the small-dollar donors may be coming back, according to the newspaper's analysis. Legislative contribution figures released this year show that with only a few exceptions, the percentage of individual contributions coming from modest contributions was bigger in 2013 than in 2012.

More figures will be available this week when new reports are filed.

If there is a rebound in the relative importance of grass-roots donors, many say Minnesota's Political Contribution Refund (PCR) program gets much of the credit. The program, unique to Minnesota, offers a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement up to $50 for individuals or $100 for couples giving to political parties or candidates. The decline in small-dollar contributions coincides almost exactly with the program's suspension.

"There is, in my mind, no reasonable explanation other than the suspension of the PCR," said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.

The program was on hiatus from 2009 until 2013, the result of state budget deficits and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's dislike of having the state underwrite political contributions.

In 2013, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a DFL-controlled Legislature reinstated the program.

Rest, vice chair of the Senate Taxes Committee, said the program allows Minnesotans who can't afford to give big bucks to have a financial voice in elections. She and others say it also helps first-time candidates, who lack the political resources of incumbents, to build their bases.

Daudt says the state should not subsidize contributions.

"If you ask people: 'Do you think it is a good use of tax dollars to reimburse people when they have given $50 to a candidate?'" he said. "I think the answer would be 'no.' "

Despite any philosophical objections, Republicans historically have employed the program to better effect than Democrats, pulling in more money from it. And when the program was reinstated in 2013, few Republicans said they would abstain from using it. "These are the rules that they put forward for our campaigns," Daudt said at the time. "You would put yourself at a severe disadvantage by not participating."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @RachelSB

Glenn Howatt • Twitter: @glennhowatt