Pair of special elections were costly battles


New DFL Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove hugged state Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, before being sworn in on Feb. 20, 2018. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Two special legislative elections in February cost candidates, political parties and outside groups a combined $1.18 million without altering the balance of the Legislature a bit.

The expensive battles that ended in a draw -- DFLers held onto a Senate seat and Republicans kept a House seat -- serve as a bit of a preview of the fall contest for Minnesota House control. It's the undercard on a ballot that also features a competitive race for governor, two U.S. Senate contests and as many as four closely watched congressional races.

Both special elections followed the resignation of incumbents facing sexual harassment allegations.

The Senate District 54 race, covering suburbs in Dakota and Washington counties, was the closest outcome and the priciest fight. That's likely because the Senate is split 34-33 in favor of Republicans, all senators won't face voters again until 2020 and it was in a historically DFL district that edged right in the 2016 election.

Karla Bigham, then a Washington County commissioner and a former House member, defeated former state Rep. Denny McNamara. They spent a combined $167,000, with McNamara spending slightly more than Bigham.

According to the newly published records, more than $713,000 poured in from parties and outside groups. The money paid for ads, polling, phone banks and canvassers. Republican-aligned groups spent more than the DFL-aligned groups, but not by much. Sixty percent of the money was used to tear down the rival candidate.

But the state DFL Party was the largest single spender in that race, plowing about $225,000 into it. Most of that went toward cable TV ads and mailings slamming McNamara. A few Republican groups -- the Minnesota Action Network, Minnesota's Future and the Freedom Club -- put about the same as the DFL Party into efforts to defeat Bigham.

The House race, for a largely rural district south of Mankato, was won by Republican Jeremy Munson, a consultant with a farming background. He defeated teacher Melissa Wagner. Each spent about $33,000 on their campaigns.

Outside spending was far higher, amounting to $228,000.

Two thirds of that spending was by Republican-aligned organizations in a district seen as solidly Republican.

The Minnesota Jobs Coalition and the Freedom Club shouldered much of the load.

The DFL Party and partner groups such as the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee accounted for most of the $64,000 from that end of the spectrum.

In November, all 134 House seats are on the ballot. Republicans are defending a 77-57 majority.

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