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Outside money a major Minnesota legislative campaign factor

Barb Haley campaigns for the Minnesota House at a farm event near Goodhue on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. She is making her first run for elective office. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
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RED WING, Minn. — Lisa Bayley laughs, halfheartedly, when talking about a political flyer showing her shoveling money into an incinerator.

Then "there is one of me with a bunch of cows wandering around and it says that Lisa Bayley must think we are a bunch of cash cows," the Democratic candidate from Red Wing said.

Her Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Barb Haley, said a mailer about her claims "I have metro millionaires and skyscrapers who are backing me; I don't know any metro millionaires."

More outrageous, she said, is a claim that said if she is elected "schools would crumble and students would not have access to technology" even though she has worked for years to improve education, including helping start a high school robotics team.

The two first-time legislative candidates are among many across Minnesota who go to the mailbox and listen to the radio only to discover attacks against them.

Often, Minnesota legislative candidates' own advertising efforts boost themselves, and say little about opponents. However, that is not how it works with groups outside candidates' control, groups that mostly try to tear down candidates they do not support.

At last report, outside groups had spent nearly $5 million on legislative general election races this year.

About two dozen districts in the Minnesota House and Senate are on various political action committee spending reports, signaling they are competitive.

Statewide, much of the spending is coming from a single group: Alliance for a Better Minnesota. The Democratic-aligned PAC has spent $2 million on radio, television and mailers in nearly every competitive legislative district across the state.

On the Republican side, Pro Jobs Majority, which is funded mostly by members of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, is the only group that gets anywhere close to ABM, spending nearly $500,000 on legislative races.

Political parties also are spending on legislative races. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party raised and spent more than $4 million this cycle, vastly outpacing the Republican Party and four legislative caucuses associated with the parties.

As the Nov. 8 election nears, voters can expect more ads from outside groups. They also may be popping up in new districts as groups see some races where they had advertised as opening up while others become tighter.

Sandy Layman, trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Tom Anzelc in northern Minnesota, told about a mailer sent out against her and other Republicans. It showed a big cigar-smoking man who supposedly portrayed the type of person Republicans like Layman would support if elected.

"I'm being criticized about mining," Anzelc said, even though he has been one of the most vocal supporters of the troubled taconite mining industry.

Former state Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock, expressed the attitude of most candidates: "It is frustrating when you see a lot of special interest money. ... It really distorts what the citizens, the voters, are exposed to."

His opponent in a rematch of their 2014 race has a way to avoid the issue. In the election's home stretch, Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said, "I tend not to listen to the radio, and not to read the newspaper."

In the Willmar area, where a 2014 state House rematch is thought to be close, "we are inundated with" the fliers, Ridgewater College instructor Sam Nelson said. And while there is no solid political science research about it, the political science and history instructor said the negative advertising could cut election-day turnout.

Back in the Red Wing area, Haley said that she does not know if outside spending influences many voters.

"I think voters are tired of that because of what goes on at the national level..." she said. "They want to hear solutions, so that is what I focus on."

While her opponent, Bayley, said people are sick of the negative attacks and is not sure they change voters' minds, she is concerned.

"People start to absorb it..." Bayley said, and the ads could influence citizens who hear the same thing, even if it is not true, over a long time.

Republicans figure Minnesotans are concerned about their health-care options, because they are hitting DFL legislative candidates hard on the issue in competitive House and Senate districts across the state. Most of the mailers try to tie DFL legislators to the state's troubled health insurance exchange, MNsure, which recently announced people on the exchange would see their premiums increase by 50 percent or more.

Democrats are going on the attack about health care, too. A theme in several competitive suburban races is that Republicans cut funding for women's health care.

A mailer from the DFL Party claimed Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, blocked a plan to require employers to provide birth control to their employees and would let insurance companies "deny women coverage for mammograms."

Then there's the political mail that's about, uh, political mail? The DFL Party sent out a mailer on behalf of multiple candidates with the message: "big corporations and CEOs" will spend "gobs of money" to attack DFLers with mailers.

The party's advice to voters: Recycle the mailers.

Briana Bierschbach of MinnPost.com, a Twin Cities-based online news source, contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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