Even the leader of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party agrees that whatever else went wrong for local DFL candidates in 2016 — including those in the Faribault area — it wasn’t a lack of money.
“Clearly it wasn’t an issue of resources,” said DFL state chair Ken Martin. “The DFL party was well-funded this year.”
In both legislative races that cover the Faribault area — Senate District 24 and House District 24B — party groups and political action committees supporting DFL candidates outspent their Republican opponents in 2016, according to end-of-year finance statements that were due Tuesday with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board from every candidate, party and committee. Despite totals that far exceed recent elections and sometimes massive imbalances in spending, both seats went to Republicans on election night.
For Senate 24 and House 24B, outside spending far outstripped the money raised and spent by the actual campaigns. The candidate reports, also due Tuesday, showed heavy spending at the close of the campaign, but much smaller totals than what outside groups deployed for their chosen candidates.
Setting the bar for outside spending was the race between incumbent Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, and Faribault Mayor John Jasinski, a Republican. Outside groups spent more than $588,000 in 2016 to support Jensen or bash Jasinski through TV, radio, print and online advertising and other support. The Minnesota DFL Central Committee alone spent $330,000 on pro-Jensen advertisements and another $105,000 against Jasinski. Despite such heavy spending, Jasinski won the vote 59 percent to Jensen’s 41 percent.
Of course, Jasinski was not without his own third-party support. The Minnesota Action Network PAC and Freedom Club State PAC together spent almost $23,000 in his support and $128,400 against Jensen. Even so, the combined $150,700 spent on his behalf was barely a quarter of what was spent by Jensen supporters.
Total outside spending on the race totaled $738,000. By comparison, in Jensen’s 2012 victory over Vern Swedin, outside groups spent about $230,000 on the candidates combined — still a substantial amount, but less than a third what 2016 brought.
Not far behind Senate District 24 in independent expenditures was House District 24B, in which Republican Rep. Brian Daniels faced a rematch with former Rep. Patti Fritz, both of Faribault, whom he had defeated two years before. On Election Day, he retained his seat by a margin of 58 percent to 41 percent.
The two drew about $75,000 combined in outside spending in 2014. However, 2016 was a different story.
Campaign Finance Board records show outside groups spent more than $272,000 on advertising in support of Fritz, and $115,000 against Daniels. Daniels supporters chipped in $96,000 in ads to support him and $173,000 against Fritz. All told, independent expenditures from Fritz allies came to almost $388,000, with another $299,000 spent on behalf of Daniels. Combined, the district drew about $687,000, a 916 percent increase from two years before.
The biggest spender by far in District 24B was Alliance for a Better Minnesota Action Fund, which dropped $122,700 on pro-Fritz ads and another $90,500 against Daniels. The DFL State Central Committee chipped in another $85,000. Leading the pack for Daniels were the House Republican Campaign Committee and Pro Jobs Majority, a group connected to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which both laid out more than $80,000 to attack Fritz.
In both races, the DFL candidates drew more positive advertising than negative, while all Republicans were targeted more with negative ads than positive.
Local races were not the only ones to draw enormous money in 2016. A Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation found that statewide spending by liberal and conservative groups in 2016 was roughly equal, and found several state legislative districts that saw more than $1 million in campaign spending. Republicans earned a 34-33 majority in the Senate and expanded their House majority to 76-57.
Martin at the DFL said the party is still assessing what went wrong and how to adjust for 2018.
“Obviously we were highly disappointed with the results this last election. There was an enormous amount of money spent on both sides of the equation, both Democrat and Republican, but more than money, it was effort that was spent. ... We’re obviously left scratching our heads wondering what happened, and how we can be more effective in the future.”
Among other factors being considered, Martin said, is whether the losses are more due to failures of tactics or messaging, or can be attributed to a wave of enthusiasm at the top of the ballot for Donald Trump.
“The real question is how much of what happened in 2016 is an anomaly based on this election, or how much is a sea change in the electorate for future elections, and that’s really what we’re trying to figure out right now,” he said.
Republican state officials did not return requests for comment Thursday.