Huge 2020 DFL money edge couldn’t tip Capitol control

Three people stand at voting booths.
Three voters cast their ballots inside the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota Campus in Minneapolis on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Democrats and their allies spent record amounts of cash in the campaign last year, but Republicans still held their majority in the state Senate and gained seats in the House. 
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Amid record-shattering campaign spending, Democrats outspent Republicans more than 2 to 1 in last year’s battle for total control of the Minnesota Legislature — but came up short, as dozens of DFL candidates lost in November despite a financial advantage.

Overall, Democratic candidates and outside groups spent more than $16 million in their unsuccessful battle to take over the Senate from Republicans, who spent just $7.7 million defending their majority, according to final campaign reports released Tuesday.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats maintained their majority but lost seats, despite spending $9.1 million to Republicans’ $4.5 million.

Total spending on 2020 Minnesota legislative races by chamber and party
Democrats outspent Republicans in the 2020 elections for the Minnesota House and Senate, but failed to retake the Senate and saw their House majority shrink.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

In general, the candidate with more money spent on their behalf tended to win, in either party. But it’s the exceptions that decided the razor-close battle for the state Senate. 

There were 13 different Senate districts where Democrats outspent Republicans — including spending by outside groups — but lost. In contrast, there were only two races where Republicans spent more than Democrats but lost.

A graph of 2020 Minnesota Senate fundraising vs. vote performance
DFL candidates lost 13 Minnesota Senate races where their candidates and allies spent more money than Republicans, versus only two districts where Republicans spent more and lost.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

This held true in almost all of the most hotly contested races of the election cycle. Democrats outspent Republicans in all nine of the most expensive Senate races of 2020, often by huge margins. But they only won two of those nine races. 

Most of those seats were held by Republican incumbents, and incumbents often have an edge since their voters already know them. But despite this, Democrats had high hopes before the November election that they would retake the Minnesota Senate. 

Winning just one more seat would have given DFL candidates majority control over the Senate. It’s unclear whether two DFL senators who left the DFL caucus soon after the election would have still done so if Democrats were going to be the new majority party.

Graph of spending on top Minnesota legislative races by party
Democrats outspent Republicans in almost all the highest-spending Minnesota legislative races in 2020, often by wide margins, but lost many of the races anyway.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

A similar story was the case in the House of Representatives, with the only difference that Democrats already had control there due to their 2018 wave, and were able to maintain their majority despite losing some close races.

In fact, though in general winning candidates tend to outspend their opponents, a majority of the victorious House Republican candidates were outspent, in what House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called a “tidal wave of Democrat money.” 

A graph of 2020 Minnesota House fundraising vs. vote performance
DFL candidates lost 30 Minnesota House races where their candidates and allies spent more money than Republicans, versus only three districts where Republicans spent more and lost.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

All told, nearly $18 million was spent backing losing candidates for the state Legislature in the 2020 general election — more than $10 million of that on behalf of unsuccessful Democratic Senate candidates. That $18 million is almost as much as the $19.1 million spent backing winning candidates last year.

A majority of that money didn’t come from the legislative candidates themselves, who are subject to fairly strict campaign finance regulations. As has been the case for many years, a majority of the spending in 2020 came from outside groups, which includes political parties and a range of interest groups and advocacy organizations. 

These outside groups combined to spend more than $25 million on Minnesota races, versus less than $12 million for all candidates combined. 

Total 2020 spending on MN legislative races by candidates, outside groups
Outside groups spent more than twice as much money on the 2020 Minnesota legislative elections as the candidates themselves.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

And all that money broke a number of records. Before 2020, Minnesota had never seen a single race with more than $2 million in total spending. In 2020, there were four such races, as well as four more million-dollar races.

The money chase is already on for 2022. 

Gov. Tim Walz, a first-term Democrat who hasn’t formally launched a reelection bid, entered the year with $1.3 million in the bank. His campaign said he raised another $550,000 in January. That makes him better positioned than the last two incumbents at this point in their initial term — both went on to win again.

No Republicans have announced a challenge or formed a committee that would allow them to raise money toward a run.

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