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Some Minn. House members spend a lot of money to raise more

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Rep. Michele Bachmann reacts to health care ruling
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in a file photo from June 28, 2012 in Washington. Of all Minnesota's congressional delegation, Bachmann spends the most money to raise more campaign cash.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With the November election less than two months away, congressional candidates are raising a lot of money. Much of it is spent on advertising, staff and lawn signs.

But there's another area where some candidates spend a lot of cash -- they spend to raise more. Among the biggest spenders are three members of the Minnesota delegation: U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, Keith Ellison and Erik Paulsen.

Bachmann, a Republican, spends the most by far of any of Minnesota's members of Congress on fundraising. In part, that's because she also raises the most money.

Since ending her presidential campaign in January, Bachmann has spent nearly $1.3 million on fundraising alone. That's 16 cents on every dollar she's raised this year.

Infograph: Return on fundraising | Campaign 2012

Some of those expenses are driven by the kinds of donors that give to Bachmann, said Chase Kroll, her campaign manager.

Keith Ellison
Minnesota 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison participates in a debate at the MPR News booth at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 29, 2012. Ellison spends about 30 cents of every dollar he raises through campaign contributions toward more fundraising.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We're not getting big checks from big PACs or from big, rich families," Kroll said. "We're getting 20 bucks here, 10 bucks, 50 bucks from across the state and across the country that Mrs. Bachmann's message resonates with."

Candidates spend big money to hire professional fundraisers, buy mailing lists of likely donors and pay telemarketers to dial up donors and ask for cash.

But campaigns can't get too carried away, Republican fundraiser Nancy Bocskor said.

"You're always trying to keep your fundraising costs as low as possible," said Bocskor, a professor at George Washington University's School of Political Management.

Rep. Bachmann relies on an enormous list of donors that she taps repeatedly for money through direct mail.

Once a campaign has a big enough list, Bocskor said, the money just keeps rolling in because the donors are giving in small amounts, well under the $2,500 individual contribution limit.

"Once you have someone who's given you money, we know that person will give again and again and again," she said.

Rep. Erik Paulsen
Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen speaks in Washington, D.C. in a file photo from Thursday, June 7, 2012. Paulsen also spends a fairly high percentage of his campaign contributions in other fundraising efforts.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

But that mailing list comes with some enormous costs of its own, like credit card fees for processing all of those small transactions. This year, Bachmann's campaign has spent more than $300,000 just on credit card fees.

Bocskor said that because direct mail pitches make highly emotional appeals to donors, it's a medium that benefits the loudest candidates.

"For direct mail to work, you have to create polarization," she said. "So if you're a moderate, you're not going to raise a lot of direct mail."

Another big user of direct mail in Minnesota is Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents the 5th District which includes the city of Minneapolis. He has spent about $425,000 on fundraising this election cycle, far less than Bachmann.

Still, that's about 30 cents of every dollar Ellison has raised.

Ellison said he's spending all that money to build up a grassroots fundraising network because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that's allowed mega-donors to put millions of dollars into elections.

"I see Citizens United as a tsunami coming across the political horizon for Democrats, in particular," he said. "There's only one antidote: reaching out to people."

Almost every political handicapper believes Ellison's seat is safe for Democrats. But he said he needs the money to influence statewide races this year, including ballot measures that would require voters to present an ID at the polls or make marriage only between a man and a woman.

"The biggest concentration of Democrats in the state of Minnesota is in the 5th Congressional District," Ellison said. "I have got to get these people out. I have got to turn out the vote in order to beat these amendments."

The other big spender on fundraising from Minnesota's congressional delegation is Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen of the satte's 3rd District, which includes the western Twin Cities suburbs.  Paulsen's campaign didn't respond to multiple interview requests. 

In his second term, he has become a strong fundraiser, bringing in more than $2.2 million since 2011. Paulsen has also spent heavily to raise all that cash -- more than $500,000, or 23 cents out of every dollar.

All of this focus on political fundraising concerns David Schultz, an election law expert at Hamline University.

Schultz said the amounts spent on fundraising suggest that politicians are being distracted from their day jobs.

"If you're spending all this time talking to donors, raising money, it means it's taking away time from doing something else," he said. 

Ellison disagrees. He said his expensive approach to raising money is simply an extension of his personalized, grassroots approach to politics.

"We're going to help these people be active citizens and that means reaching out to them and having the wherewithal to reach out to them," Ellison said.

In the middle of a fiercely contested election such as this one, no politician is likely to say they need fewer resources to win re-election.