At first, the campaign mailers trickled in, says Lydia Hinojosa.
"Then, at some point, we were just bombarded with them," says the Edina resident. "I thought, 'these guys, they have to be spending serious money on this stuff because they're very slickly done, it is good quality paper, all the postage.' "
Hinojosa is right. She happens to live in a Minnesota Senate district that is being fiercely fought over by Republican Rep. Keith Downey of Edina and DFL newcomer Melisa Franzen. It's the most expensive legislative race in the state, with the candidates, parties and outside political groups pumping nearly $600,000 into advertisements, polling and campaign literature there.
But while $600,000 may seem like a lot of money for a legislative race, it's just a sliver of the millions that have poured into campaigns across the state. An MPR News analysis of campaign finance reports shows that at least $10.4 million has been invested by candidates, parties, unions and political groups on both sides of the aisle to defend or challenge the Republican majorities at the State Capitol.
That figure is likely low. The analysis doesn't include spending done on extremely non-competitive races, nor does it include spending that's been done since Oct. 22, the last day included in the final campaign finance reports of the year. The true cost of this year's races won't be known until 2013 when final reports are filed.
And it doesn't include spending from outside political groups that don't have to report their activities.
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Nevertheless, this year's battle for the Legislature stands to be the most expensive in Minnesota state history, says Todd Rapp, a DFL analyst and president of Himle Rapp & Co. public relations firm.
"As recently as just 20 years ago, if you had taken all Democratic sources outside of the candidate money ... it was a million at best," Rapp said. "We're talking 10-fold in 20 years."
Sorting out why so much money is flowing into races that are traditionally local and low-key is far more complicated. With every seat in the Legislature up for grabs this year and redistricting throwing incumbents into new areas where name recognition is low, it was bound to be an expensive year.
Take the Downey-Franzen race, which is an open seat, Rapp said. Downey is a rising star within the Republican Party, and the DFL party and liberal political groups see Franzen as the perfect candidate for the newly redrawn Edina area. Further, advertising in suburban areas tends to be more expensive, said Rapp.
After losing the Legislature in 2010, Minnesota DFL party chair Ken Martin says it is sheer enthusiasm that's driving outsized spending on his side.
"I think the reason for that, particularly on the DFL side, is a real hunger amongst donors and activists to win back majorities in the Legislature after two years of failed leadership among Republicans in the State Capitol," Martin said.
Republican Party Chair Pat Shortridge did not return calls to discuss spending on Republican candidates.
In 2010, Democrats barely lost some of this year's most expensive and competitive races. That's the case in the race between GOP Sen. Ted Daley and former state Sen. Jim Carlson in the Eagan area. Carlson lost his seat in 2010 by 3.6 percentage points. So far this year, that race has cost nearly $478,000.
Martin said Republicans have hit a ceiling on votes there, and Carlson can take back his seat if Democrats simply vote.
"There are places where we lost these elections on the margins," Martin said. "They weren't huge watershed elections for these Republicans. If we just have a great turnout amongst our base we should be able to win some of these seats back in places like Eagan."
MORE MONEY, BETTER COORDINATED
While this year's legislative candidates appear to be benefiting financially from a potent combination of enthusiasm and redistricting, Minnesota is also experiencing a fundamental shift in how elections are won and lost.
The vast majority of money spent on each legislative race is coming from outside groups, and it's more coordinated than ever before, said Maureen Shaver, a public affairs professional who has worked on Republican campaigns.
"I believe that this is the most coordinated effort we've ever had both in Democratic and Republican races ever in Minnesota, and that there's much more money that has been spent on these targeted races," she said.
Shaver is referring to organizations such as the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota and the conservative Minnesota's Future that can accept massive contributions from wealthy individuals and groups, and spend that cash on key races.
MAPS: EXPENSIVE RACES
Note: Click on the highlighted districts below. The darker the color, the greater the spending.
The numbers deserve a few caveats:
First, they reflect spending only though Oct. 22, the end of the last campaign finance reporting period. Candidates and groups have certainly spent more than that since then. Further, MPR's analysis did not look at every race and every expenditure. Rather, it focused on the most competitive and expensive races in the state, and the biggest spenders.
The Alliance for a Better Minnesota has dropped more than $1 million in television, web and radio advertising in targeted areas, including Edina and Eagan — the same races where the DFL party and other liberal groups are focusing their cash.
Meanwhile, Chris Tiedeman, who works for Weber Johnson Public Affairs and operates Minnesota's Future, a political fund that largely relies on donations from the business community, has spent nearly $770,000 on phone banking, direct mail and ads. His group also shared polling information with the House and Senate GOP caucuses to refine their message.
"It helps us to know what's on the minds of voters who we're going to be targeting, whether it's direct mail, or cable or radio," Tiedeman said.
NOT 'MINNESOTA NICE'
It won't be clear until after Election Day whether all those dollars were worth it.
GOP Sen. Ben Kruse, who is running to represent the Coon Rapids/Brooklyn Park area for the second time, says he always knew his seat, long held by Democrats, would be one of the most expensive to defend. Already, nearly $400,000 has been spent there, much of it coming from the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which opposes Kruse, and the Freedom Club, a conservative group that supports him.
But he has mixed feelings about how the money has been spent.
"I would say that it's very nice to have the support, but you can overdo it," Kruse said. "I think you can particularly overdo it when it comes to the negative advertising, the negative literature pieces, the negative TV ads — I think it turns people off."
Mark Brakke of Coon Rapids is one such voter. He has been getting mailers daily, most coming from outside groups, and says he's never seen anything like it in the nearly 40 years he's lived there.
"The stuff by outside parties is negative, not insightful and I think in many cases clearly distorted and doesn't really shed any light on what's actually going on in the election," Brakke said.
Joan Vincent who lives in St. Cloud, the nexus of another competitive race between GOP Rep. King Banaian, who won his seat by 13 points in 2010, and his DFL challenger Zach Dorholt, said the advertising she's seen is "extremist and alarmist."
"It's so annoying and it feels wasteful to me," she said, adding that mailers have had no effect on her political views. "They just go right into the recycling."
That's a sentiment Ted Daley, the GOP Senator who's running in that competitive race near Eagan said he hears a lot when he's out door-knocking.
"At this point, I'm actually hearing at the door, 'Gosh, can you stop spending me so much of your stuff?' It seems at this point we've reached a point of diminishing returns," he said, adding that he often has to explain to voters that the mailers aren't coming from him in the first place.
Daley said that the campaign literature he's seen against him and his opponent, Jim Carlson, distract from the campaign.
"They aren't necessarily Minnesota nice," he said. "It's not my style. My approach is to be positive."
DFL chair Martin, who used to be in charge of raising money for the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, said the expense of this year's legislative elections isn't an anomaly. He expects outside money will mean expensive legislative races in the future.
"The real danger there to democracy is that these groups that really have no accountability back to the candidates, the voters or platform, at the end of the day are going to overshadow the candidates, are going to overshadow the voters," he said.
TOP 10 MOST EXPENSIVE LEGISLATIVE RACES
Note: Totals for each candidate represent spending done by the campaign, parties and outside spending groups. The figures represent spending between Jan. 1 and Oct. 22, 2012.
Source: Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board