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MN 2018 races: Spending by candidates, outside groups topped $57M

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Outside groups and candidates spent more than $57 million to influence elections on the state level last year, putting final numbers on the flood of campaigning and television ads that inundated Minnesotans last fall. 

Counting outside and candidate spending, the governor’s race that DFLer Tim Walz won consumed more than $30 million. That includes $18.5 million spent by outside groups alone, much of it to boost Walz. Candidates also invested heavily in themselves: Walz spent $4.59 million on the race, and Republican Jeff Johnson raised and spent $2.1 million.

In nearly every race, DFL donors and candidates outpaced their Republican opponents in raising and spending campaign cash. The election saw Democrats sweep major state offices and take back control of the House. 

In the governor’s race, outside groups spent more than $8 million on ads involving Walz, 74 percent of that total boosting his campaign. On the flip side, groups spent $6.2 million on ads about Johnson, but 92 percent of that money was spent attacking him. 

State campaign finance regulators on Friday posted the final receipts from outside groups, candidates and political parties for the 2018 election. It’s still just a fraction of the money spent in Minnesota last fall. The state reports don’t include tens of millions of dollars that flowed into four competitive congressional races in Minnesota, as well as two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. It was the first time in four decades both seats were up at the same time. 

Third party groups, not affiliated with any candidate, also spent $9.34 million on control of the state House. Democrats picked up 18 seats to take back the majority in the chamber. The House DFL caucus also out-raised and spent Republicans in that contest, spending $5.3 million and $3 million on the election, respectively. 

Most of their victories were in the suburbs, as were nearly all of the 10 ten most expensive races. Outside groups spent more than $500,000 on a trio of suburban races where DFL candidates unseated a Republican incumbent. 

The one vote, 34-33 split in the state Senate last year also put a special spotlight on two special elections last year, one in the suburbs and another in central Minnesota. The results of both races ultimately didn’t change the makeup of the chamber, but outside groups still poured $3.18 million into the contests. The entire Senate is up in the 2020 election. 

The open race for attorney general drew the attention of outside groups, which spent $2.15 million to try and influence the outcome. DFLer Keith Ellison was elected to replace former DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson.

The biggest single donors for each party were familiar names: Alida Rockefeller Messinger, the ex-wife of former Gov. Mark Dayton, donated $1.46 million to various groups and campaigns, including money that made its way to Alliance for a Better Minnesota. The DFL-aligned group spent $9.2 million on state races, more than any other outside group. On the Republican side, longtime donors Bob and Joan Cummins donated $1.6 million to influence the election.

-- MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.