In 2010, before Democrats had even settled on a candidate for governor, Minnesotans began seeing ads on TV that attacked Republican candidate Tom Emmer.
"So when I heard that Tom Emmer sponsored a law to reduce penalties for drunk drivers, I was outraged," said a woman in the ad whose son had been killed by a drunk driver. She also pointed out that Emmer had been arrested twice for driving under the influence.
The ad wasn't paid for by a candidate. A liberal organization called the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) produced it. ABM eventually spent $5.2 million on an ad campaign to defeat Emmer and elect Democrat Mark Dayton governor - $600,000 more than Dayton spent on all his campaign costs.
Emmer says he was surprised by how much money ABM spent on the spots, and how well-coordinated their message was.
"The impact would be the amount of money and what appeared to be a very well organized, incredibly well-coordinated and well-funded effort to define me as a candidate before I ever, ever had a chance to do that myself or before any other entities were engaged as well," he said.
ABM's efforts worked in 2010: Emmer narrowly lost the election.
Money In Minn. Politics
• Graphic: Where $5.2 million came from
• Previously: Robert Cummins, GOP stealth donor
Now, ABM is turning its sights on the Minnesota Legislature, hoping to win back control for Democrats after Republicans won majorities in both houses in 2010 for the first time in nearly four decades. Behind the scenes, wealthy donors--including Dayton's ex-wife-- and the Democratic interest groups they fund will be supporting ABM's efforts.If successful, ABM's strategy could change the way legislative elections are won and lost in Minnesota.
ABM represents a relatively new breed of outside organizations that can spend money to support or oppose candidates directly, or air ads that take sides on specific policy issues. These organizations can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, unions, other political action committees and non-profits - unlike candidates, who are subject to fundraising limits. And they can spend money more flexibly than political parties.
The only thing ABM can't do is give money to political candidates or coordinate directly with their campaigns.
The model isn't distinctly Democratic; conservatives have similar operations in Minnesota and outside spending groups are taking a more aggressive role in federal elections.
What makes ABM different is that it is especially coordinated and well-financed. All major players in DFL politics, from unions to environmental groups to community organizers, either support ABM financially or are involved in key decisions on Democratic talking points, spending on campaigns and public policy priorities.
The 2012 elections will be a new challenge for the growing group. In the past, ABM has focused on one race and one candidate, as it did with Mark Dayton in 2010. This year, the group will broaden its focus to multiple races, including legislative and congressional races, and ballot initiatives.
"It's kind of a new era for ABM," said Carrie Lucking, who is executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. "You saw last year that we worked on our issue advocacy work a lot more around the budget. And here in 2012, I think you'll see us branch out and do more work in more races than we have in the past."
Lucking is among a tight-knit web of individuals and organizations behind ABM. The group has connections to almost every arm of the DFL establishment: some of its chief donors include Dayton's ex-wife and members of his family; Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin has ties to the group; and Lucking was spokeswoman for the DFL caucus in the Minnesota House, and worked on several high-profile campaigns prior to joining ABM.
Dayton's chief of staff, Tina Smith, and Jeff Blodgett, who was a senior aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and who directed President Barack Obama's Minnesota campaign in 2008, have ties to WIN Minnesota, ABM's primary fundraiser.
Aside from advertising on behalf of specific candidates, both Win Minnesota and ABM share resources and work closely on developing campaign themes and messages with other groups. Lucking holds regular meetings where ABM, outside groups and members of the administration and Legislature discuss general strategy on legislative issues. While ABM is prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates, Lucking expects DFL interest groups to talk electoral strategy, too.
A POWERPOINT IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
The story of ABM starts nearly a decade ago in Washington D.C., said DFL party chair Martin.
In 2003, a Democratic operative named Rob Stein started making the case that liberals across the country needed to be better organized beyond the next election. Republicans had spent decades developing and funding a highly organized network of think-tanks and legal advocacy groups to bolster their message - and he argued Democrats needed to as well.
The strategy would require wealthy donors to wield their influence outside the party, which is more focused on the next election, not on long-term change, Martin said.
In the wake of the 2004 presidential election, groups in Minnesota took notice. Likeminded union leaders, environmentalists and grassroots activists decided to pool their resources to advance a progressive agenda in Minnesota, said Blodgett, who is executive director of WIN Minnesota.
In preparation for the 2006 election, the coalition established WIN Minnesota to raise money, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota to handle communications and a third committee to help coordinate members of the group.
The efforts resonated with one very important DFL donor: Alida Messinger, the daughter of John D. Rockefeller III and Mark Dayton's ex-wife. Messinger, who declined a request to be interviewed, is one of Minnesota's top political donors and has also served on WIN Minnesota's board. She has given more than $5 million to Democratic candidates and causes since 1997, according to state and federal campaign finance documents.
"Alida really enjoyed that model and basically wanted to create a state-based organization that would focus on long-lasting progressive infrastructure," said Martin, who considers Messinger a close friend.
The first test was in 2006, when ABM spent nearly all of its $2.5 million to oust Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty from office. Pawlenty won a second term, but the effort wasn't a loss, said ABM Founding Director Denise Cardinal.
"What we did find is that by working together, we were able to become much more efficient," she said.
The strategy has also allowed smaller groups to compete when political advertising is increasingly expensive, said Eliot Seide, who is Executive Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, the state's largest public employee union.
"It brings together lots of folks, some of whom have capacity and some of whom have lesser capacity, and brings them together around a common theme," said Seide, whose organization gave more than $155,000 to ABM and the funds that fed it in 2010. "AFSCME is a large and progressive organization. But we can't possibly do this alone."
In 2007, the groups decided ABM needed to have a permanent role in public policy. Since then, it has expanded by forming a non-profit and a fund meant for federal elections.
WIN Minnesota and ABM's goal isn't just to support candidates, said Blodgett, who works closely with Messinger to guide her political giving. The groups aim to spur long-term change in the state, he said.
"I do this work because it takes sustained, ongoing efforts to keep moving your state and your country in the direction you want to see it move," he said. "You can't just do one election and leave. You've got to stay at it."
To some extent, ABM has relied on Messinger's checkbook.
Since 2006, Messinger has given ABM a total of $752,000 - the largest amount from an individual. Meanwhile, she's given $665,000 to the WIN Minnesota political action committee; between the 2006 and 2010 election cycles, WIN Minnesota gave ABM more than $4 million.
ABM and WIN Minnesota get cash from a range of other donors as well, including the state's teachers, nurses, firefighter and service employees unions, some of the state's Native American tribes, Minnesota investor Vance Opperman, and members of Dayton's family.
That cash, funneled through the WIN Minnesota fund and a separate account meant expressly for ABM's 2010 efforts, helped more than double the group's coffers in the last election cycle, much to the dismay and frustration of Republicans.
ABM spent nearly all its $5.7 million targeting Dayton's opponent, Emmer, with a slew of negative ads.
Emmer had support from outside groups that raised cash from the state's business interests. Combined, the conservative groups MN Forward and Minnesota's Future spent $2.4 million advertising on Emmer's behalf.
Republicans have criticized ABM for relying too heavily on donations from Messinger and Dayton's family. They argue that Dayton's family and friends effectively bankrolled outside spending on his campaign. Minnesota House Majority Leader Matt Dean said he expects those donors to target his caucus this year.
"He also said he needs a Democratic Legislature to help his agenda and that is what he is looking for in this election," Dean told Republicans attending his precinct caucuses in Stillwater. "His ex-wife, Alida Rockefeller Messinger, has said that she will write those checks."
But Blodgett points out that Messinger didn't throw her support behind one candidate during the primary. And ABM's allies frequently point out that millions of dollars in contributions are also coming from Minnesota's working class through union funds.
"They need to have a voice in politics and if it weren't for us, it really would be dominated by large corporations," said Cardinal.
Lucking said that ABM has nothing to hide about its work or its donors.
"We're disappointingly transparent to those who want to find a conspiracy," she said. "If you want to know what work we're doing, watch your TV, go online, watch cable, listen to the radio because what we do is very much in the public eye."
A SECOND SOURCE OF CASH
There's truth to Lucking's claim: campaign finance documents make clear where ABM gets cash to support it political spending.
But the transparency goes only so far.
The law does not require ABM or WIN Minnesota to disclose who gives to its non-profit operation. Blodgett and Lucking declined to give further details.
Increasingly, ABM is using its non-profit arm for advocacy in non-election years; radio ads that targeted Republicans for causing last summer's government shutdown are one example.
WIN Minnesota also uses its non-profit wing to finance its political action committee and to boost an array of organizations that work on progressive issues. In 2010, those groups included Impact Minnesota, which works on policies affecting the African American community, the Somali Action Alliance, and community organizing group Take Action Minnesota. Minnesota ACORN, which has been criticized by Republicans for how it identifies and register voters, received $155,000 from WIN Minnesota in 2008.
ABM's non-profit reaps the biggest financial benefit: In 2008 and 2010, both critical election years, WIN Minnesota gave the group a combined $1.17 million for research, education and operations, according to tax documents. And in 2009, a non-election year, ABM was WIN Minnesota's only beneficiary and provided nearly all of its funding for the year.
Money moves seamlessly between ABM, WIN Minnesota, and the organizations they're aligned with, and so do staff and board members.
Blodgett sits on ABM's board. DFL Party Chair Ken Martin was WIN Minnesota's executive director until he took over as DFL party chair in 2011.
And in 2010, ABM's board hired Cardinal - then serving as ABM's executive director - to conduct research and polling, as did the DFL party. All told, ABM and the DFL have paid Cardinal's firm, Project Lakes and Plains, at least $173,500 for the work, according to campaign finance documents.
Staffers in Gov. Dayton's office also have close ties to ABM. Dayton hired Tina Smith, who served on WIN Minnesota's board, to be his chief of staff. Smith left the board in 2010 when she started working on another campaign. He also hired an ABM staffer to work on his communications team. And ABM has since recruited one of Dayton's communications staffers.
But despite the revolving door of staff and board members, Lucking says ABM is careful to abide by campaign finance laws that prevent outside groups from coordinating advertising and messaging with candidates, particularly during regular policy discussions the group has with the DFL party and the Legislature.
Dayton, who says ABM was instrumental in his bid for governor, said he raised a "Chinese wall" between his campaign and the group. That rule extended to Messinger, with whom Dayton remains friendly.
"I remember saying to Alida the first time we sat down in 2009 when I started to run: We just can't talk about anything to do with WIN Minnesota," he said. "We just didn't have that conversation."
LOOKING TO 2012
Though ABM spent millions on the governor's race in 2010, Dayton won narrowly. Meanwhile, the party lost control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years.
DFLer David Bly of Northfield lost his seat in the Minnesota House.
"There was so much attention on electing a Democratic governor that a lot of groups were spending their money doing that," Bly said.
While conservative outside spending groups plastered Bly's district with fliers, party leaders told Bly repeatedly he would win reelection.
"But that didn't hold up," Bly said, "We suffered the same consequences as the rest of the country."
DFL Party chair Martin, who was WIN Minnesota's executive director in 2010 and who also oversaw a second fund meant exclusively for ABM's efforts to elect Dayton, says the move was shortsighted.
"In hindsight, it's easy to say we should have focused on trying to keep those chambers," Martin said. "Our job and the donors who put money in wanted us to focus on winning that governor's race and not having any of that money peeled off for any other activities."
This year, ABM and WIN Minnesota's donors are anxious to regain those seats.
Martin rejects the idea that ABM threatens to eclipse the party's influence or the candidates' importance.
"It's a three-legged stool: you need candidates that are strong, you need parties that are strong, and you need independent expenditure groups that are strong," Martin said. "That means that they're going to have to give more than they have in the past. And that's just the nature of politics now."
For his part, Dayton says there is a downside to having outside groups like ABM around: they've diminished the control campaigns have over messaging, particularly when it comes to advertising.
"There are so many factors in a campaign that you can't control, so you focus on the ones that you can," Dayton said, reflecting on his 2010 race. "I was uncomfortable with one ad I saw - saw it on television. But again: I knew right away that I don't have any say or any sway in that, and I can't even try legally."
Despite his frustration with outside money, Dayton's political agenda may rely on the effectiveness of ABM to help Democrats win back the Legislature.