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Veterans pushing into politics find a ready army of money, support

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DFL candidate Dan Feehan met with supporters in Rochester.
DFL candidate for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District Dan Feehan meets with supporters in Rochester.
Catharine Richert | MPR News File

This year's midterm elections have seen a surge in the number of veterans running for office — and that trend is playing out in southern Minnesota. 

  There, Iraq War vet Dan Feehan won the DFL endorsement to replace 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, who is seeking the party's nomination for governor.  

That win was partly boosted by a national network of political groups that are working across the country to propel campaigns like Feehan's.  

The support comes with a significant amount of money.   

Earlier this year, a group called With Honor, which supports veteran candidates in both major parties, spent at least $58,000 on television ads and mailers supporting Feehan's campaign. They touted his two tours in Iraq and his teaching experience with Teach for America. 

It's experience, Feehan said, that makes him a good candidate.   

"I feel I have a degree of wisdom that makes me a better decision maker and one that knows the true stakes that policies and laws have," he said.   

Itemized donations from across the country

These figures do not include unitemized donations, those contributions by an individual that total less than $200. Donations by individuals who have donated $200 or more to campaigns have information reported by the Federal Election Commission.

Itemized donations to the Feehan campaign from Minnesotans represented only around a quarter of total donations though the end of March. The most money came from donors in New York during the reporting period. Source: Federal Election Commission

With Honor's Democratic political director Ellen Zeng said Feehan is one of 400 veterans running for office this year. Her group, which formed last year, is supporting only a sliver of those candidates.

Zeng said it was Feehan's service that caught her group's attention.   

"His record, and his story and his commitment to service is what we really look for in candidates," she said. "Veterans have served something larger than themselves and that's the reason they are better members of Congress."  

Federal law bars groups like With Honor from coordinating spending with the campaigns it's supporting. But increasingly, these so-called independent expenditure groups are having a significant impact on campaigns.  

These figures do not include unitemized donations, those contributions by an individual that total less than $200. Donations by individuals who have donated $200 or more to campaigns have information reported by the Federal Election Commission.

The group said that it may spend up to $1 million on each candidate it's supporting. 

Normally, $1 million would be substantial in a campaign for the 1st District seat. Total candidate spending has not topped $2 million since 2012, according to Open Secrets, a website that tracks campaign spending.   

But this year $1 million may end up being a small portion of the money pouring into the district. With no incumbent to beat, Republicans see an opportunity to grab the seat, which has swung between the parties for years.

Republicans have endorsed Jim Hagedorn, but state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, will also be running in the primary. Feehan faces no significant primary challenge.   

While ad spending from groups like With Honor help, Feehan says he and other vets often need basic advice on how to get a campaign off the ground. 

  Enter a bipartisan nonprofit called New Politics.  

New Politics recruits and coaches both veterans and non-veterans who worked for national service programs to run for office,raise money and craft compelling messages.   

Founder Emily Cherniack said she met Feehan through a mutual friend several years ago, but they didn't start talking about a run until after President Trump was elected. 

Last year, Feehan moved back to Mankato, Minn., from Washington, D.C. The 35-year-old grew up in Red Wing, Minn., but moved out of state when he was 14.  

Political experience and funding are both big barriers for veteran candidates, Cherniack said.

  "They don't have resources of their own," she said. "They're not trust fund babies. They don't come from networks of wealth."  

These figures do not include unitemized donations, those contributions by an individual that total less than $200. Donations by individuals who have donated $200 or more to campaigns have information reported by the Federal Election Commission.

The Democratic candidates Cherniak's group helps can find funding from yet another group in the network supporting vets — the Serve America Victory Fund. The Victory Fund and affiliated political action committee are the brainchild of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton who was elected in 2014. He was the first vet Cherniack recruited and coached.   

The Victory Fund has donated about $120,000 to Feehan's campaign. That's a fifth of the total Feehan has raised so far. And a large portion of his money has come from donors outside the state.   

For his part, Feehan said he doesn't want corporate money in his campaign. But the Serve America Victory Fund and PAC both have received large donations from investment banker heavyweights and PACs representing various industries.  

University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said campaigns need wide funding networks to be competitive.   

"Of course the outside money will be very helpful," she said.  

But it comes with a downside.   

"It's something Republicans will use against him, saying that a lot of this money was coming from outside the district and reminding voters that he hasn't lived there in quite a while."  

Feehan thinks his record and platform will outweigh criticisms about his loyalty to Minnesota after being away for so long.