How the DFL and its allies engineered a takeover of the Legislatureby Catharine Richert, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican Ted Daley is still scratching his head about the loss of his Eagan-area Senate seat.
"Was it my votes? Was it my approach?" said Daley, who lost a competitive re-election bid against Democrat Jim Carlson. "Was it their candidate? Was it the amendments or the shutdown?"
All those factors may have contributed to Daley's defeat, but there's another that stands out, he said: the onslaught of negative campaigning from outside political groups.
Chief among them is the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), which spent roughly $50,000 to defeat Daley, including a cable TV ad that knocked the first-term lawmaker for voting to help corporations.
Daley's seat is just one of many victories ABM can count this year. After playing a significant role in electing Gov. Mark Dayton in 2010, the group, which is funded by wealthy donors and unions, set its sights on flipping the Republican-controlled Legislature.
ABM spent at least $1.1 million targeting 32 races this year, many that the DFL narrowly lost in 2010. It lost only 6, and the DFL re-took control of both the Minnesota House and Senate, further cementing ABM's reputation as a juggernaut in Minnesota politics.
ABM is just one of many outside spending groups that influenced this year's elections, and its success is tied to new voter turnout efforts by the Minnesota DFL Party, to President Barack Obama's Minnesota campaign, and to fundraising and organizing difficulties on the right.
But Democratic and Republican operatives alike say ABM is doing something right. The group is disciplined in how it spends money, letting poll numbers — not ideology or loyalty — guide its investments. It focuses on big media advertising buys while the DFL party and legislative caucuses identify and turn out voters, and spend on direct mail. And ABM works as closely as legally possible with the party and legislative caucuses, which streamlines communications.
Republican operative Andy Parrish works for Minnesota for Marriage and A Stronger Minnesota, a political fund Parrish hopes will compete with ABM in future elections. He called ABM's 2012 campaign "brilliant" because it was driven by polling, not a candidate's personality or policy focus.
"You'll see some outside interest groups, and they'll be concerned about only business," he said. "Well, ABM doesn't care. They play where they can win and they support the progressive candidate where they can win. There's not much of a litmus test for them."
A SINGLE COALITION
As one of a number of outside groups influencing Minnesota elections, ABM is allowed to spend money to defeat or promote a candidate, but it can't work with the campaigns. And it can share tactics with the DFL party and caucuses, too, as long as it doesn't violate the state's coordination laws.
ABM got its cash through WIN Minnesota and the 2012 Fund, two political funds where unions and wealthy individuals including Alida Messinger, the daughter of John D. Rockefeller III and Mark Dayton's ex-wife, pool money to support ABM's communications activities.
While ABM's donors do their own political spending, much of their money and advertising has been filtered through ABM in the last few election cycles, a model that cuts down on competition for donor dollars and redundant messaging.
That model is key to ABM's success, said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who led WIN Minnesota in 2010 and employed the same coalition concept this year as party chief.
"What you see with WIN Minnesota is a number of different groups from different walks of life and different individuals who have, in many cases, disparate agendas, coming into a room, putting down their swords and agreeing to work towards one objective," he said. "This cycle, it was winning back the Legislature."
A DATA-DRIVEN CAMPAIGN
So, with the singular goal of flipping the Legislature, ABM used data to find out what would move voters.
ABM tracked what people across the state were unhappy about through newspaper op-eds and other public forums, ABM Executive Director Carrie Lucking explained. Then the group crafted messages around those concerns, tested them through polling, and tested them again closer to Election Day and in specific communities. Some of the work was done by ABM Founding Director Denise Cardinal, who operates her own research and polling outfit. Cardinal also polls for the DFL Party.
Some messages, such as one about an affair between former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and staffer Michael Brodkorb, fell flat, Lucking said. Rather, voters were concerned about property taxes, school funding and the state's budget deficit.
"Those were time and again the things that we saw come out of our polling or data. And so some of those more politically-fueled arguments fell by the wayside and we went with the big picture," Lucking said.
ABM tailored messages to different areas. In rural parts of Minnesota, the group hosted a series of press conferences linking local Republican lawmakers to rising property taxes. And in areas around the Twin Cities, ABM ads targeted GOP lawmakers for their votes on public school funding.
Even with every legislative seat up for grabs this year, ABM group didn't waste money in districts that the DFL was clearly poised to win or lose — even if Republicans were spending heavily in those races.
Rather, ABM let polling dictate where it would spend money, investing mostly in massive cable and radio buys. Those spots were supplemented with online ads, which gobbled up 20 percent of ABM's budget, the largest amount the group has ever spent on web communications, Lucking said.
ABM, the DFL and the caucuses decided early on that ABM would handle cable, radio and web advertising, Martin said. Direct mail and get out the vote efforts were left to the party and the caucuses.
The idea was to avoid duplicative communication efforts, which can tire voters and waste money, Lucking said.
"We decided to communicate in an effective way, not to just fill up people's mailboxes," Lucking said.
ABM NOT ALONE
The Republican House and Senate caucuses and outside spending groups did their share of message testing, polling, cable advertising and coordination, too.
For instance, the House Republican caucus spent at least $730,000 on television and radio ads targeting many of the same races ABM was involved in, and it gave money to the Republican Party of Minnesota for campaign mailers. The caucus also shared its polling data with Minnesota's Future, a group working to elect Republicans.
Chris Tiedeman, who leads Minnesota's Future, said that his group also relied on polling to dictate spending. But he added it's not a foolproof strategy, pointing to Republican Rep. Deb Kiel's race in the Crookston-Red Lake Falls area and Republican Sen. John Pederson's race in the St. Cloud area. ABM worked to defeat both candidates, but their efforts fell short.
"Those were just particularly strong candidates in districts where the number didn't necessarily look all that good," Tiedeman said.
Still, the ABM coalition is doing things differently, Tiedeman said.
He pointed out that there are many outside spending groups on the right, each with a slightly different agenda, so it's difficult for everyone to sit at the same table. And there's less coordination with the Republican Party of Minnesota.
"There's certainly loose discussions [between the groups], but we're not a monolith," Tiedeman said. "The business community has friends and allies across party lines. And so there's never going to be the same level of coordination as what ABM and their coalition has. It just isn't feasible."
That's where Democrats have an advantage, said A Stronger Minnesota's Parrish. With everyone at the same table, there's less competition for money and campaigning is more streamlined.
"One thing the Democrats have done for decades better than we ever have or we ever will, is they play very nicely together," Parrish said. "They welcome everyone to their sandbox."
CAN THEY DO IT AGAIN?
ABM's critics are quick to point out that any success it enjoyed this year is partly the product of good fortune.
The group's tight-knit group of liberal donors gave them a financial edge, and their coffers were augmented by strong fundraising by the party. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, still buried in debt, had trouble raising money, say observers. Republican Party chair Pat Shortridge did not return calls to discuss the party's finances or its campaign strategy.
The House Republican Campaign Committee former director Ian Marsh says that ABM's ads frequently misled voters. And Marsh points out that House Republicans still had a competitive, sophisticated ground game.
"We kept track of which doors our candidates were hitting and the type of voters and the type of precincts better than we ever had before," he said.
But those efforts only went so far without robust get-out-the-vote operations from the Republican Party or Mitt Romney's campaign, he added. "There's no doubt that the Democrats had a better turnout operation," Marsh said.
Turnout was key to ABM's 2012 story, said Lucking. DLF Party Chair Ken Martin said that for the first time the DFL brought party allies, the caucuses and the governor's office behind one plan to win back the Legislature. The strategy included a novel two-part voter turnout strategy that focused on motivating loyal Democrats within the Twin Cities and Duluth, and persuading voters to support Democrats in 30 key legislative districts.
The Obama campaign was on the ground here for more than a year, generating enthusiasm among Democratic voters. Obama volunteers were also instructed to talk about specific legislative candidates in certain districts, said Obama for America's state director Jeff Blodgett.
"We tried very hard not to duplicate efforts, and to really focus on those voters that we knew required an extra nudge to get out and vote," said Blodgett, who led WIN Minnesota in 2011.
Voter turnout isn't something ABM plans to do, and in that regard, Martin says the group's work is complementary to party activities.
"They can help move the needle, and there's no doubt they did in this case," Martin said. "But they'll never be able to replicate what political parties and candidates do in the way of volunteer organizations, boots on the ground and turnout organizations."
For now, Lucking says ABM is still deciding what role it will play in 2014, when some of the Legislative seats it helped win this year will be up for grabs again, Dayton will be running for re-election as will U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
Republican Tiedeman says protecting the Legislature in two years won't be an easy lift for ABM or for the DFL. Some of the seats they just won were secured by moderate Democrats who campaigned on fiscal restraint.
"The DFL is in a bad spot right now because they're either going to overreach and anger the center or they're going to upset their base," Tiedeman said. "It will be interesting to see how they approach this."