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When the people speak, it's money that talks
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An ad mailed to voters criticized a Republican candidate for allegedly "toeing the party line." (DFL mailing)
A Minnesota Public Radio analysis of campaign finance records shows that state political party units last year spent close to $3 million to influence the outcome of a handful of targeted legislative races. In almost two dozen cases, the party spending outstripped what the candidates themselves were allowed to spend under voluntary spending restraints. And despite calls from party leaders for more civil discourse, a substantial part of the money was used for negative attack ads.

St. Paul, Minn. — Last fall's elections saw a dramatic realignment in the Minnesota House, with Democrats whittling down a substantial GOP majority to just a few seats. The people, said the pundits, had spoken. That may be. But it was only after the state DFL Party and the House Republican Caucus did a bit of speaking of their own: almost $3 million worth over the weeks and months preceding the election. That doesn't include spending by the candidates themselves or by other outside groups.

Hamline University professor David Schultz says the spending makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the election.

"This really sort of questions whether or not, for example, the success that the Democrats had last November was driven by the fact that they recaptured the political center and finally moved into the suburbs. Or was it the fact that they just spent very, very well to be able to buy an election victory?" Schultz says.

Democratic Party units spent more than $1.5 million, almost 25 percent more than the House Republican Caucus, which spent just over $1.2 million. Such independent expenditures are made without the consent or the approval of the candidates involved and often present messages the candidates themselves would rather avoid.

For example: negative ads. Republican Jim Rhodes of St. Louis Park was on the receiving end of that strategy. He says a flurry of last-minute mail pieces distorted his record and used unflattering images -- a man dressed as a ballerina, for example -- to suggest he neglected his constituents' needs.

"To say that I'm an extremist and the picture of somebody coming to the party where they have a... somebody in a dancing tutu... what has that go to do with my voting record? It's all about me then. And to the point that it actually made my wife physically and emotionally sick," according to Rhodes.

The DFL spent close to $70,000 in Rhodes' race, more than half of it on ads describing him as an extreme Republican. By contrast, the nonpartisan Politics in Minnesota Directory says Rhodes has a reputation for being "one of the nice guys" who works "with members on both sides of the political aisle." Rhodes lost his race to DFLer Steve Simon. Simon says he can understand why his party's ads upset Rhodes.

"I don't agree with the characterization in those pieces. He and I had good faith differences about votes that he took. But it doesn't mean he's a bad person. It doesn't mean he doesn't care. It doesn't mean he's not committed," says Simon.

But it wasn't just Democrats attacking Republicans. The House GOP Caucus spent almost $40,000 in the Rhodes/Simon race. The effort included mail pieces that accused Simon of neglecting his appointments to several advisory councils and task forces.

University of Minnesota communications professor Ron Faber says the parties know that going negative usually pays off.

"The rule of thumb is that a piece of negative information is worth about five pieces of positive information in creating an attitude," Faber says.

Parties are required to indicate whether their expenditures were made for a candidate or against an opponent. Based on those self-reported figures, more than half of Democratic independent expenditures were negative. About 20 percent of GOP expenditures went reported as opposition ads.

But DFLers say the discrepancy is mainly a matter of accounting differences. If in doubt, Democrats say they were more likely to report one of their ads as negative. Faber says in low-level races voters may rely more heavily on these mail pieces to form initial impressions of legislative candidates. And he says the public often won't recognize if facts are distorted or taken out of context. Sometimes the ads go further than that.

"They distort votes. I know that's gone on for time; for eons that there can be some vote distortion. I think that happens to every candidate," says DFLer Rebecca Otto of Marine-on-St.-Croix. "But when you have out-and-out lying, attributing things to somebody they never said, that's not right. And it's going to keep people from running."

One GOP ad attributed to Otto inflammatory statements that were actually made by her husband. A panel of administrative law judges found the ad was intentionally false and fined the House Republican Caucus $4,000. Four days later, Otto lost to Republican Matt Dean.

All told, the parties spent roughly $108,000 in the Otto/Dean race. The candidates themselves, as a condition of accepting public campaign subsidies, where limited to about $30,000 apiece. With party units far outspending their own candidates, Dean says the candidate can lose control of the message.

"It kind of puts that in jeopardy if there's lots and lots of outside dollars at play. So it's definitely concerning for candidates like myself and others in the House," according to Dean.

Dean says he doubts the ads affected the outcome of his race. Not surprisingly, that's a common response among winners, regardless of party. DFLer Sandy Peterson of New Hope says she won her election the old fashioned way: by shaking hands and knocking on doors.

"We contacted every household at least three times. And besides that we sent out three pieces of literature ourselves, which, by the way, were very positive," she says.

Peterson benefited from almost $70,000 spent on her behalf, about half of it directed against her opponent. Peterson says she spoke out against the negative ads but that because the independent spending was legally separated from her campaign, there was little she could do to stop it.

Her opponent, Republican Lynne Osterman, says that's not true. During her 1998 bid, Osterman says the Republican Caucus began mailing out attacks against her opponent.

"So I complained," says Osterman. "And they were not sent. The remainder of the mail plan was scrapped because they didn't want those pieces in the district based on my reaction."

In the 2004 election, Republicans again came to Osterman's aid to the tune of $30,000. But campaign finance reports indicate none of it was negative. Overall, the millions spent were targeted at a handful of races considered critical to winning control of the House. And of the 15 seats that changed hands, all but two had significant outside spending.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says had there been no independent expenditures, he could have held up to 10 of the 14 seats he lost.

"Yeah, we're going to have to raise monies. We cannot continue to be outspent by such significant amounts. You know, the irony of this probably is that the general public would think, 'you know, Republicans spend more money on campaigns then Democrats do.' The irony is Democrats outspent Republicans," Sviggum says.

But DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the spending wouldn't have been effective if Democrats didn't also have a compelling message. Entenza points out that the flood of spending began with a GOP lawsuit in the late nineties that opened the door for parties' independent expenditures.

"They were hoping that money would prevail. And it's interesting that now the Democrats for the first time are finally getting competitive in fundraising that Republicans seem to be concerned about the influence of money," says Entenza

Entenza says Sviggum and others should rally behind campaign finance reform if they're really concerned about the role of money in elections. But Hamline professor David Schultz says that's unlikely. Schlutz says the current system concentrates power at the top, an advantage no one is eager to relinquish.

"By being able to direct money towards critical races to help specific candidates of their parties, they are then able to, if those candidates win, have significant control and leverage or indebtedness by these candidates to them," says Schultz. "So it's really centralizing power in the leadership."

Schultz says the independent expenditures grow every year, and are likely to surge again in 2006. Control of the House will once again be at stake, as will control of the Senate.