A handful of scary political possibilities worry Minnesota Democrats. They fret that the base won’t turn out this year, that conservative groups will blanket the state in negative ads, and that the Affordable Care Act will weigh down the ticket.
But Sen. Al Franken is not taking chances, pouring millions of dollars into his reelection campaign even though his seat is widely considered safe and a formidable Republican opponent has yet to emerge.
On paper, Franken’s campaign has spent more than $15 million so far, making the Minnesota race one of the most expensive contests this cycle, ahead of closely watched campaigns in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s also not surprising, Democrats say, because Franken won his first race in 2008 by just 312 votes, narrowly edging out former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman even as President Obama carried Minnesota by 10 percentage points. The recount, which stretched into 2009, plus campaign debts, help explain the $15 million. If those costs are factored out, spending is closer to $7.5 million, Franken’s camp points out.
Even so, Franken is in for a high-spending campaign, given that the average winning Senate effort spent about $10.4 million in 2012, that Franken’s campaign still had almost $5 million in the bank in December and that the election is still more than half a year away.
The expenses are justified, Democrats say, to ward off Republicans and prevent another anxiety-inducing recount.
“Anyone who would suggest this race is over nine months early is fooling themselves,” said Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin. “Even if you would say this isn’t a competitive race right now, they’re doing the things they need to do to keep it from becoming a competitive race. That’s why you spend the money.”
Franken’s campaign stresses that it is spending at such a high clip to send a signal to conservative outside groups like Americans for Prosperity, which is jabbing Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
“The best way to combat those attacks and keep Sen. Franken in the Senate fighting for middle-class Minnesotans is to invest early and build a strong grassroots infrastructure,” campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said in a statement.
A former Saturday Night Live writer, comedian, and author, who recently held a fundraiser with Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame in Minneapolis, Franken rakes in cash from both deep-pocketed stars and small donors. His campaign touts the fact that 97 percent of his contributions so far this year have been for $100 or less.
When it comes to spending, Franken has laid out a great deal on fundraising itself (it takes money to raise money). The prospect that the Democratic base could stay home in November means that Franken has also spent heavily on field operations and building infrastructure across the state, Martin said.
If turnout is a worry, then former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny of Minnesota validates that concern. Penny, who served from 1983 to 1994, said he intends to stay out of the Senate race, not because he doesn’t like Franken, but because of political fatigue.
“They’re spending mega-millions,” Penny said. “I’m just done with it. They’ll find their money somewhere.”
By contrast, Franken’s GOP opponents have raised and spent far less.
Businessman Mike McFadden, who has the backing of several establishment Republicans including Coleman, raised roughly $1.5 million and spent about $541,000 so far this cycle. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, who recently won a party straw poll, has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars and spent about $117,000.
Rather than shooting at each other, both Republicans have taken aim at Franken.
“If that much has been spent in this race, it’s been spent ineffectively,” Ortman said. Added McFadden spokesman Tom Erickson: “Money doesn’t win elections. Ideas do. … Ideas are what’s gonna matter most in this race.”
Like their national counterparts, Minnesota Republicans are focusing their attacks on Obamacare. With Obama’s approval rating hovering in the mid-40s in blue Minnesota according to a recent Star Tribune poll, it’s unclear whether Franken will appear with the president when he’s in Minnesota this week.
What is less murky, though, is that Franken isn’t leaving much to chance this time around.
“His spending patterns reflect the fact that national races are volatile these days,” said former Democratic state legislator Matt Entenza. “I think the fact that he’s spending this kind of money is like buying insurance.”
CLARIFICATION: A story Tuesday reported that Sen. Al Franken’s campaign has spent more than $15 million on his reelection effort. Information provided by the campaign after the story was published indicates that about $7.5 million was spent on reelection, with the remainder spent on the recount in his last election and to retire campaign debt.
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