Democrats vastly outspent Republicans in the 2020 battle for control of the Minnesota Legislature, an election in which they failed to reclaim control of the Senate and lost ground in the House during a campaign transformed by the pandemic.

The Minnesota DFL Party and the House and Senate Democratic caucuses spent more than three times as much as their Republican counterparts, according to year-end campaign finance reports released Tuesday. They focused much of their resources on trying to flip the Republican-controlled Senate and deliver Democrats a trifecta hold on the Legislature and governor's office for the first time in nearly a decade.

But the opportunity slipped out of their grasp as legislative Republicans down ballot largely outperformed Donald Trump, who lost the president's race in Minnesota to Joe Biden by 7 percentage points.

"Money doesn't guarantee success at all," said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. He described the 2020 outcome as a "mixed bag," in part because Democrats limited their voter outreach to digital efforts, calls and texts during the COVID-19 pandemic, forgoing the door-knocking that leaders described as critical — which the GOP continued.

The 2020 campaign was unlike any other in Minnesota, with both parties spending more on tech to connect to each other and voters. The Republican Party invested $9,000 in new voting technology as they switched to virtual endorsing conventions in the spring. Senate Republicans filed expenses for Zoom meetings. The state DFL Party spent more than $25,000 on COVID-19 testing, but saved money on brick-and-mortar operations. They had just three or four offices operating statewide compared to 35 to 45 in a normal election year, Martin said.

Nonetheless, the DFL Party reported spending nearly $11.8 million on 2020 state campaigns, including transfers to some politically aligned unions and groups, dwarfing the $1.1 million the Republican Party of Minnesota reported in its year-end state report. The two state political parties spent far more on federal races. Federal election filings show the DFL's purchases and payments last year totaled $18.4 million, while the state GOP spent nearly $12.8 million.

In the race for the state Senate, the Republican Caucus spent $3.9 million in 2020 and held on to a narrow, one-vote majority over Senate Democrats, whose caucus reported spending $7.1 million to try to flip the chamber. Democrats picked up four Senate seats from Republicans, but two DFL incumbents lost their races for re-election.

In the House, Democrats reported spending $6.2 million to retain control of the chamber, but they lost five seats in greater Minnesota and the suburbs to House Republicans, narrowing their majority to 70-64. House Republicans reported spending roughly $2 million in 2020, according to their year-end report.

"Thanks to hardworking candidates who ran disciplined and locally focused races, House Republicans were able to pick up seats in the face of a tidal wave of Democrat money," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said. "Despite being massively outspent, we held every Republican seat, picked up seats in the suburbs, knocked off longtime Democrat incumbents, and made historic gains on the Iron Range."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, offered very different reasons for the GOP's inroads into their Democratic majority. Like Martin, she said House Democrats avoided in-person campaigning, saying they did not think it was responsible during a pandemic.

"The telephone is just a really limited communications tool for campaigning," said Hortman. "Another factor is Republican lies were particularly effective this year." Hortman said the GOP sent out mailers depicting DFL candidates as supporters of defunding the police when that was untrue.

Outside spenders, including those representing labor and business interest groups, poured $25.7 million in independent expenditures into Minnesota legislative races in 2020. DFL-aligned groups also outspent GOP funders in that area. Democratic group Alliance for a Better Minnesota's independent expenditures totaled $5.8 million over the year, far more than other groups. Advance Minnesota gave $1.7 million to Republican committees and candidates, the largest amount of independent expenditures by any GOP-affiliated group.

The outside spenders put the most money — more than $2.3 million — toward the race between Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Democratic challenger Bonnie Westlin. Reports show nearly $950,000 of that total was spent on an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Limmer, the largest amount spent in opposition to any candidate.

The faceoff to represent the southern suburbs of Burnsville, Lakeville and Savage also drew huge sums. Democrat Lindsey Port ousted GOP incumbent Dan Hall in that race. Outside groups spent a similar amount, about $1.9 million, on the battle for a Rochester-area seat where longtime Republican Sen. Carla Nelson defeated Democrat Aleta Borrud.

Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, defeated GOP opponent Joe Garofalo in the House race that drew the most outside spending. Independent expenditures reached $505,000 in that district.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz was not on the ballot in 2020 but his campaign said Tuesday that he has $1.3 million in the bank heading into the 2022 midterm election, not including another $550,000 raised in January. Walz is expected to seek a second term in 2022. There are no announced GOP candidates yet in the governor's race.

As the state GOP and DFL parties start gearing up to support their gubernatorial candidates, Democrats are headed into this year with dramatically more cash, according to state and federal reports. The DFL ended last year with $2.5 million in cash on hand while Republicans have about $55,500.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042