ST. PAUL — Union workers, business leaders and political activists all do it — pool money to influence votes.
In what’s shaping up to be the most closely watched election in recent memory, the majority of campaign spending likely won’t come from the candidates seeking office or their political parties, but from outside special-interests groups.
There are dozens of these organizations out there working to sway who becomes Minnesota’s next governor and attorney general, who goes to Congress and which party controls the state Legislature. Their spending — which is already approaching $30 million — overshadows the roughly $15 million the leading candidates and their parties have invested in the 2018 election cycle.
And the real politicking has just gotten started.
“A lot of the commercials voters are going to see are not done by the candidates,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor. “Most of the negative attack ads are by third-party groups. It’s probably close to 50 percent (of campaign spending) in some high-profile races.”
Candidates are split on third-party groups’ involvement, Schultz says, because while they don’t have to get their hands dirty, they also have a lot less control over the message.
Here to stay
Like them or not, outside political groups have been around a long time and are not going away. There are typically two types involved in campaigns.
Political action committees, or PACs, have been around for decades. They collect donations that are funneled to candidates or other groups supporting specific causes. Where the money comes from, how much is donated and where it goes are all regulated by state and federal laws.
Another type of group emerged after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some campaign-finance laws in the 2010 Citizens United case.
Independent expenditure groups, often called super PACs, can’t donate directly to candidates, but they also don’t face the same regulations as typical PACs. Minnesota has created rules that are more strict than federal regulations so voters know more about where these groups’ money comes from and how it is spent.
Millions pouring into state
So far this election cycle, PACs and independent groups have raised more than $43 million and spent $28 million to influence political campaigns. More than $8 million of that spending was on “independent expenditures” that didn’t go to candidates or other groups, but often funds the TV and radio ads or mailers produced to praise or trash candidates.
It’s likely just the beginning.
Voters will be walloped with political messages between now and Nov. 6. Schultz is betting $120 million or more will be spent this election cycle by candidates, political parties and outside groups.
Who are the big players?
The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board released fundraising and spending data Wednesday for the year up to Sept. 18. That covers the state’s caucuses, the party endorsing conventions, the Aug. 15 primary and the campaign since then.
The next reports are due at the end of October, and they will illustrate even more clearly which groups are spending the most to influence the vote in 2018.
Here’s a sampling of the groups so far:
- Alliance for a Better Minnesota
Raised: $6.5 million
Spent: $6.5 million, including $4 million in independent spending
Cash on hand: $56,760
Details: One of the leading liberal groups, Alliance for a Better Minnesota spent heavily before the gubernatorial primary against former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It has turned its focus toward Republican Jeff Johnson after his upset of Pawlenty. The group receives money from related groups including the 2018 Fund and WIN Minnesota.
- Education Minnesota PAC
Raised: $2.7 million
Spent: $2 million
Cash on hand: $1.4 million
Details: A traditional PAC that is the political arm of the state teachers union that represents 70,000 educators. Largely supports Democratic candidates, but also spends a lot of money on grants to teachers union locals for political and other activities.
- American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
Raised: $2.8 million
Spent: $2.5 million
Cash on hand: $300,000
Details: AFSCME and its affiliated organizations raise money both locally and nationally. They support Democrats as well as nonpartisan candidates for local offices at the county and municipal levels.
- MN Jobs Coalition, Pro Jobs Majority, MN Action Network
Raised: $1.9 million
Spent: $1.3 million
Cash on hand: $776,000
Details: These three business-backed groups are related and some of their finances are intermingled. Funding comes largely from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and business leaders including Bob Ulrich, former Target CEO. They support Republican candidates in the Legislature and also backed Pawlenty’s bid for governor.
- Freedom Club, Minnesotans for Bold Reform
Spent: $501,812 including $469,787 in independent spending
Cash on hand: $421,546
Details: These two conservative groups are backed by Bob and Joan Cummins, who provided most of their funding. Bob Cummins leads Primera Technology and has been active in Republican politics for decades. These groups backed Johnson while being critical of DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz and support conservatives for the state Legislature.
- Coalition of Minnesota Businesses
Raised: $1.2 million
Spent: $404,737, including $398,409 in independent expenditures.
Details: Another business-backed group funded mainly by the Minnesota Business Partnership, a coalition of the state’s largest corporations, and the Northstar Leadership Fund. Business Partnership executive director Charlie Weaver is the treasurer of Northstar, a group with ties to Majority Strategies, which is active in several states. Supports Republicans running for the Legislature.
What else to look out for?
These groups and coalitions are just a sampling of the players working to influence the outcome of the 2018 vote. It doesn’t include a number of individual donors who give the maximum amount to several candidates and their political parties.
National super PACs are also not included here. Professor Schultz says as Minnesota becomes more politically competitive, voters can expect to get more attention from national groups.
That’s especially true when a race is seen as having national implications for control of Congress. So don’t be surprised if national super PACs start to clog the airwaves with ads targeting competitive congressional races or both of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate.
“We are turning into Ohio,” Schultz said of the perennial Midwestern battleground state and the possibility that national attention and campaign spending could balloon in Minnesota. “It could be an enormous amount of money.”