Big money pours into battles for Minnesota House

The House floor
The floor of the Minnesota House during opening session of the 2014 legislature, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News file

The governor's race may be this year's highest profile contest, but the campaign for control of the Minnesota House is where Republicans and Democrats are putting their money.

The two major parties have spent more than $6.7 million on radio, television and web ads and direct mail in those races compared to $4.7 million spent so far on the governor's race.

The gap is the product of a late start to the governor's contest, a wider array of candidates to support and more sophisticated campaigning in lower profile races, political analysts say.

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They also point out that Republicans see the House as their best shot at having a say in policy decisions made in Minnesota next year.

The GOP's House focus has forced Democrats to pony up money, too, in districts they may not have expected to defend, said Brian McClung, a former spokesman for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"In past years I think donors and those who are involved in politics would look at the governor's race and say 'There's a big prize. We know if we have someone in the governor's office, that's going to make a big difference,'" said McClung, who now runs a public relations firm and works with some of the groups spending on Minnesota House races.

"In this election cycle, I think many of the groups made the decision that the more likely possibility of changing the current dynamic is to flip control of the House of Representatives," McClung said.

Using data from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, MPR News crunched the numbers to see just how much the political parties and political groups have spent on the Minnesota House since the start of the year.

The most expensive House races:

See where the two sides are spending most:

These maps illustrate how much money the most expensive Minnesota House races have attracted so far from political parties and political groups unaffiliated with specific candidates. Data is from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Spending figures include money that was disbursed for or against a House candidate between Jan. 1, 2014 and Oct. 20, 2014. These figures do not include spending by the candidates themselves. Furthermore, these figures do not include spending conducted by political non-profits that don't have to disclose their finances.

Combined, the state Republican Party and its political allies have spent roughly $3.3 million to win just seven seats in the Minnesota House — the number they need to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats and end one-party rule in St. Paul.

Democrats have spent about $3.4 million to defend their majority.

The analysis doesn't include how much candidates spent on their own campaigns. What's more revealing is where well-funded political groups aimed at influencing public policy are targeting their money.

Republicans are putting big money largely into districts where Democrats narrowly won in 2012, that voted in favor of Mitt Romney in 2012 or are rematches. Nineteen of those races have drawn more than $100,000 in spending so far.

Among the groups placing their bets on the Minnesota House is the Pro Jobs Majority, a political action committee affiliated with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that has spent more than $900,000 on more than 20 races.

In the governor's race, the Pro Jobs Majority supports Republican Jeff Johnson and spent more than $64,000 on ads against DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said Laura Bordelon, the Minnesota chamber's senior vice president for advocacy.

Spending decisions for the chamber come down to policy priorities, Bordelon said.

"Our issues are economic competitiveness and jobs," she said. "It's becoming very clear that that message resonates strongly in greater Minnesota and a lot of the candidates we're supporting in greater Minnesota talk about the importance of jobs and the economy. So we've made some pretty big investments with those candidates in those races."

National groups have a stake in Minnesota, too.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which aims to elect more Republicans to state Legislatures, has so far funneled $250,000 into Minnesota's House races through the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a group that's narrowed its television campaign to eight seats, four rural and four suburban.

Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach
Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach speaks to the St. Cloud Rotary Club Sept. 16, 2014 for a legislator forum.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Democrats, meanwhile, have been playing defense in races across the state, including DFL Rep. Zach Dorholt's competition against Republican Jim Knoblach in St. Cloud. It's the single most expensive race in the state so far, drawing more than $600,000 with half coming from liberal groups.

Among them is the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a group that's primarily focused on the governor's race but that has also invested $1 million in House races.

ABM Deputy Director Joe Davis says he's confident DFLers will keep the House.

"I think on the Republican side, there was always this belief that this was going to be another 2010," he said, referring to the Republican takeover of the Minnesota House and Senate, which the GOP then lost in 2012.

"Everyone is waiting for a wave," Davis added, "and that wave just doesn't look like it is coming to Minnesota."