Candidates, groups spend big in pricey final campaign push

Two candidates sit at a debate table
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (left) and GOP challenger Scott Jensen deliver opening remarks during a debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minnesota candidates, parties and groups went on a spending spree as the campaign hit its home stretch, dispatching millions of dollars into TV ads, mailers and door-to-door voter mobilization.

When the smoke clears, it’s shaping up to be a $100 million election year for offices tied to the State Capitol — not even counting the activity in local and federal races that are also competing for the public’s attention.

The final full look at campaign spending in state races show just how big the burst of activity is in contests for governor, attorney general and secretary of state. The campaign for control of the Minnesota House and Senate is also proving expensive, each party defending a thin majority and attempting to wrest complete power over the legislative agenda.

Candidates across Minnesota combined to spend $31 million by the time Oct. 24 rolled around, according to an analysis of reports filed with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. Parties and outside entities have heaped on about $47 million more.

Much of that is devoted to a governor’s race that has eclipsed the $30 million mark on its own.

Gov. Tim Walz has spent just shy of $8.6 million this year in pursuit of a second term — about 43 percent of it in the last month alone. Democratic groups assisting in the effort have added more than $16 million. 

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Much of that has been used on negative ads against Republican nominee Scott Jensen. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which amassed its money from unions, left-leaning groups and the Democratic Governors Association, had spent more than $8.5 million on TV ads and another $5 million on online ads by itself.

A substantial outside push from Jensen’s allies only recently began, the Republican Governors Association putting $750,000 into anti-Walz ads last week. Until then, the conservative Freedom Club State PAC was the only group with a notable investment reported to campaign regulators, which was roughly $300,000.

The secretary of state’s race between Democratic incumbent Steve Simon and Republican Kim Crockett has seen almost $5 million in ad activity recently by DFL-aligned groups alone.

And there’s been a couple of million dollars in ads aired by both sides in a tight attorney general’s race between DFL incumbent Keith Ellison and Republican challenger Jim Schultz.

More money is flowing in daily for outside entities, including some six-figure checks. What they do with that money won’t be reported to the campaign board until early next year.

Meanwhile, the battlegrounds in the Legislature have clearly taken shape.

Three state Senate races have already topped $1.1 million in combined spending with another just on the doorstep. 

There are 19 House races where party caucuses and groups have spent more than $200,000. A St. Cloud-area House seat has attracted more than $700,000.

The money going for TV ads and mail barrages often dwarfs what candidates are able to spend on their own.

Democrats are nursing a narrow House majority while Republicans don’t have much room for error if they want to maintain their Senate majority. A new set of political maps that led to a wave of retirements has also added to the uncertainty.

Many of the competitive legislative races are in areas that Democratic President Joe Biden carried in 2020, meaning his party is in a defensive posture in a midterm election that has the party out of the White House primed for gains. But Democrats hope unease with this summer’s Supreme Court abortion ruling will mobilize their base to limit any damage.