When Republican Rep. Tama Theis of St. Cloud ran in a special election last year to fill a vacant state House seat, she got a boost from a group more than 1,000 miles away.
Now, the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee has its eye on helping Republicans retake control of the Minnesota House, and it will use donations from major corporations, including Minnesota companies, to try to do it.
It's not unusual for national political groups to spend money on behalf of Minnesota candidates, but the RSLC's strategy is different. It's working closely with an independent in-state group, Minnesota's Future, to target money to candidates offering the best chance to restore a GOP majority to the state House.
Republicans need only seven seats to take control of the House, and there are at least that many Democrats who won by very small margins in 2012, including Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, and Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka.
"We see a tremendous opportunity for the Minnesota House to have a pick-up in seats and possibly even flipping the chamber," RSLC president Matt Walter said.
Walter won't discuss potential targets or how much the RSLC plans to spend here in 2014, though he calls Minnesota a "top tier target" for his group.
Corporations pitch in
The Republican State Leadership Committee focuses on electing Republicans to state offices, including state legislatures and secretary of state offices. The idea is simple: more Republicans in state offices mean more conservative public policies at the state level.
In 2010, Republican strategist and former Republican National Committee chief Ed Gillespie ramped up fundraising among corporate donors and strategically moved money to states where Republicans had a good chance of winning.
Internal Revenue Service records show the RSLC gets most of its money from corporations, including several well-known Minnesota companies.
Combined, firms including Best Buy, 3M, Target, United Health Group and others have given the RSLC nearly $800,000 since 2011. (Minnesota companies, including Target and 3M, have also given to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which gave the state's DFL party roughly $700,000 in 2012.)
The money is pooled together with contributions from other individuals and companies, and redistributed throughout the country.
The strategy shields corporate donors, said Hamline law professor and campaign finance expert David Schultz.
He points to Target's public relations difficulties when it gave money to a conservative group that supported former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.
"By giving to a national organization with the understanding that it may even filter its way back into the state, it makes it much harder to trace the money," Schultz said.
Spending in Minnesota
Candidates can't accept corporate dollars. But campaign finance laws allow third-party groups like Minnesota's Future to take unlimited donations from individuals, unions and corporate-backed groups and spend them on individual races as long as they don't coordinate with candidates.
In 2012, the RSLC gave Minnesota's Future, a fund run by Weber Johnson Public Affairs, $610,000 — roughly half of what the group raised.
"We worked with [the RSLC] on a routine basis, so they would be comfortable with their investment, and we took their advice," said former Minnesota's Future chair Chris Tiedeman. "These guys are very good at what they do. They do this all around the country."
The RSLC's Walter said the group keeps close tabs on down ballot elections, conducting its own polls to make sure that their partners in the states are making good spending decisions.
Despite the $1.1 million Minnesota's Future spent on 35 legislative races in 2012, Republicans won in only 11.
Still, in 2103, the RSLC was the only donor to Minnesota's Future, giving the group $11,000. In turn, Minnesota's future spent nearly that much on a special election in St. Cloud that helped elect Republican Theis to the state House.
The RSLC and Minnesota's Future will continue to work together this election cycle. The group is also interested in supporting the Minnesota Action Network, an organization founded by former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and affiliated with the American Action Network.
Walter said having President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in 2012 didn't help them because Minnesota voted overwhelmingly for him. But with Obama's approval ratings low and a midterm election coming up when voter turnout is typically lower, Walter said Minnesota is a better target.