WASHINGTON - Alida Messinger, Minnesota's biggest political donor, is a shy Rockefeller heiress who has made an outsized mark on public life while managing to stay out of the headlines.

Over the past eight years, the 59-year-old Minneapolis philanthropist has made $9.2 million in political contributions, mostly to Democratic candidates and political causes around the nation, according to a new Star Tribune study.

Topping a list of major players in Minnesota politics, Messinger has given more than three times as much as the state's second-largest political donor, Republican activist and businessman Brian Sullivan. The bulk of Sullivan's contributions so far this decade -- some $2.3 million -- went to his own gubernatorial bid in 2002.

This year -- in the first presidential election to surpass $1 billion in total fundraising -- the political largesse of Messinger and other major donors in Minnesota illustrates how the wealthy can spread their influence through less-restricted contributions to major parties, special interest groups and political action committees, many with close ties to the candidates and causes they support.

"That's how most of this is done," said Vance Opperman, who ranks fifth on a list of top donors in Minnesota politics, with $1.3 million in contributions since 2001, nearly all of it to Democratic party units and political action committees.

"Look, money on the one hand, politicians on the other, they will always find each other," said Opperman, the former West Publishing magnate who is now president and CEO of Key Investment Inc., a holding company.

While Opperman and other top givers differ on the need for more limits or greater transparency, they all agree that there is nothing sinister about the vast sums that they can pour into a political system whose lifeblood is money.

"There's no hidden motive," said Sullivan, president and CEO of medical device maker SterilMed Inc. "It's all very clear. I think Republicans offer the best principles and policies for the future of this country, and I want to do what I can to promote them."

After Sullivan, the top Republican contributor in Minnesota is reclusive conservative entrepreneur Robert Cummins of Deephaven, who has bankrolled efforts to pass a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

His issue: Marriage

Cummins, president of Primera Technology in Plymouth, declined to discuss his political contributions. State and federal records show that he has given more than $1.7 million, most of it to parties and independent groups such as Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage and Minnesota for Marriage, which are unfettered by limits on contributions made directly to state and federal candidates.

Cummins ranks fourth in the newspaper's study of political giving by Minnesotans and others who have given to Minnesota candidates, parties, and political groups over the last four federal election cycles -- a period that extends back to 2001.

'Money ... deployed'

The state's third-ranking donor is not even from Minnesota. He's 51-year-old Internet entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, the multimillionaire inventor of one of the first versions of the optical mouse.

Kirsch, who lives in the San Francisco area, has spent more than $2 million in Minnesota -- almost all of it, he said, on DFL party organizations that sought to reelect Sen. Paul Wellstone before his death in October 2002. Other than that, he said, he has no connection to Minnesota.

Unlike Kirsch -- and Messinger -- some of the state's top givers have invested less in pushing causes than in funding their own campaigns. Among them is trial lawyer Mike Ciresi, who spent more than $1.1 million on his second U.S. Senate run. He also has spent more than $200,000 on a host of other DFL candidates, a figure that, taken by itself, would put him in the top 100 Minnesota political donors.

But this year, with pressure building to provide ever-more money for the most expensive presidential race in history, Ciresi says he's tapped out. "The money is outrageous," he said. "We're still getting calls, and we're saying 'No, we're done.'"

Ciresi advocates a system of public financing for elections, believing that big donations translate into access to politicians. But he rejects the conventional view that money buys the votes of elected officials.

"To say that because someone contributes to a candidate that therefore that candidate is going to vote the way that person wants, that doesn't happen," he said. Rather, he said, big donors give to the candidates who already reflect their views.

Bad government is worse

Another top Minnesota donor is Messinger's more famous ex-husband, Mark Dayton. While the former U.S. senator and department store heir Dayton used his personal fortune to finance his own $12 million campaign in 2000, he has since turned to funding others' campaigns.

He decided not to run for reelection in 2006, partly out of a distaste for fundraising on his own behalf. "I deplore the ever-increasing cost of these elections," said Dayton, who advocates a system of partial public financing.

But despite the ever-rising costs of campaigns, he said, "elections are much less expensive than bad government."

And so Dayton gives -- a lot. But of the more than $1.1 million he has contributed to others, only $166,200 has gone directly to candidates. Nearly $892,000 has gone to party committees, which have looser contribution limits.

In Messinger's case, only $65,000 of the millions she spent on politics has gone directly to state candidates since 2001. The vast majority has gone to an array of national causes, including the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group that tracks voting records in Congress and boasts of having helped defeat candidates with anti-environment records.

$1 million for amendment

Locally, she has also contributed $1 million to help pass a state constitutional amendment on the November ballot for a three-eighths percent increase in the state sales tax to raise money for the outdoors, the environment and the arts.

Messinger, living in a multi-million-dollar house near Lake Harriet's Rose Garden, declined to be interviewed for this story, though she did provide a written statement: "I am very fortunate that I was born into a family with a great deal of money and that I am able to support projects and issues that I care deeply about," she said. "I give so much because I have the resources, and I think it's the right thing to do -- it's what I want to do."

One of her concerns, she added, is to help those who haven't been as lucky. "Our society often favors the wealthy," she said, "and I therefore support candidates who believe in helping those who are not so fortunate."

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