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Report shows influence of outside groups on gov campaign

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Emmer and Dayton
Republican Tom Emmer, left, and DFLer Mark Dayton, right, greet each other before participating in a gubernatorial debate at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday Sept. 3, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Democrat Mark Dayton and his allies outspent Republican Tom Emmer and his supporters by nearly 2-1 in last year's race for governor. Campaign finance reports released Tuesday also show that spending by outside political groups outpaced spending by candidates. 

Mark Dayton spent $5.3 million campaigning for governor, and $3.9 million of that was his own money. Emmer's campaign spent $2.8 million. 

In past gubernatorial elections, Dayton's spending would have topped the fundraising charts. But this year, he was outspent by one of his allies -- the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which spent $5.7 million to help Dayton win the election. Most of that money went for ads criticizing Republican Tom Emmer. 

Ken Martin, who ran the umbrella group that financed The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, says donors were energized to elect the first Democrat to the governor's office since 1986.

"People invest in politics on all sides, and it's not for any other purpose than to support the candidates that they feel are going to best represent what they believe in," said Martin. "Frankly, the payoff is a better Minnesota, and they believe Mark Dayton was the candidate to make that happen."

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota is funded mostly by labor unions, wealthy DFL donors, the Democratic Governors Association and American Indian tribes. 

In fact, labor unions spent heavily to help Dayton get elected and to help with Dayton's recount efforts. Dayton defeated Republican Tom Emmer by nearly 9,000 votes -- a race close enough to force a statewide recount. 

An analysis of campaign finance reports shows that labor unions in Minnesota and across the country spent more than $2.2 million on Dayton's behalf. In many instances, those unions gave tens of thousands of dollars each to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and Dayton's recount fund. There aren't any limits on those contributions, but there are limits on how much Dayton could spend through his own campaign. 

For his part, Dayton said those who contributed to his campaign should not have any expectations of him. He also said he intends to push for increased disclosure of campaign contributions.

"Candidates and political parties and all of the third party groups have to report their receipts every quarter, retroactive to January 1 of this year, because we should have full knowledge particularly as decisions are being made in this legislative session," said Dayton.

Last year's election marked the first time corporations could spend money directly to influence campaigns. Two groups aligned with Tom Emmer collected corporate contributions. 

Minnesota's Future, a group funded mostly by the Republican Governors Association, spent $1.4 million. MN Forward, a group that received funds from businesses like Target Corp. and Best Buy, spent $1.8 million. 

Brian McClung, who directed MN Forward, said corporate contributions will play an even bigger role in future campaigns.

"When the entire Legislature is going to be up following redistricting, it's going to be more important than ever from the business community perspective that the majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate understand what it takes to grow jobs in the state, understand the type of business climate that we need. I think the business community will be very involved in the next election," said McClung. 

Republican Party Chair Tony Sutton wants corporations to be even more involved in Minnesota campaigns. Sutton said he's going to lobby the Republican-controlled Legislature to allow political parties to collect corporate contributions. Sutton says that would "level the playing field" with organized labor.

"Organizations like The Alliance for a Better Minnesota get to take corporate money. They answer to no one," said Sutton. "Political parties have hundreds of thousands of voters, tens of thousands of activists, elected officials, leaders and committees. I'm answerable to people like you who call up on the phone. These people answer to no one."

One question Sutton isn't answering is how much money the Republican Party and Tom Emmer raised for the recount. In December, Sutton said that his party would disclose the recount funds on its state campaign finance report. Now, he said the GOP decided to create a corporate account for the recount and won't disclose the figures. 

When asked about the discrepancy in past statements, Sutton said "We changed our minds."