The TV advertising battle is officially underway in the Minnesota governor’s race, and along with it comes the specter of record-breaking spending.
Attorney General Mike Hatch, the DFL candidate, launched his first ad Wednesday. It came a day after the Republican incumbent Governor Tim Pawlenty hit the air waves with his second spot.
Experts believe the aggressive ad buys, combined with the Governor’s decision to reject the voluntary spending caps, puts this race on a pace to exceed 1998’s totals. That year the gubernatorial candidates spent $8.6 million, and parties and political action committees spent another $3.2 million in the state.
Meet Mr. Hatch
The Hatch ad introduces another side of the Attorney General. He’s seen hunting and hanging out with his dog, and mixed with his list of achievements are biographical tidbits.
“He's from greater Minnesota, joined the Merchant Marine, married 30 years with 3 daughters,” a narrator says as the screen is filled with images from Hatch’s life – including his merchant marine ID card.
“He's trying to define himself before Pawlenty defines him, so for people who don't know Hatch it's a definition,” says Hamline University’s Dave Schultz.
He believes another point of the ad’s approach is to defuse critics of Hatch’s aggressive public persona.
“The likeability factor is a huge issue,” Schultz told KARE-TV Wednesday, “And some people say for especially for Hatch it's a big issue, because some people say he can be abrasive.”
Hatch’s running mate Judi Dutcher says people are accustomed to seeing the Attorney General in his consumer watchdog mode.
“You know what I've been telling people is he comforts the afflicted and sometimes he afflicts the comfortable,” she told KARE.
The former State Auditor, who switched parties in 2002, says she feels good about the race despite the fact Governor Pawlenty has $2 million cash on hand, twice as much as the Hatch campaign. And Pawlenty’s bound to raise a lot more, now that he’s decided to exceed the spending cap of $2.4 million.
Dutcher predicts the Governor’s move on the spending limit will backfire with voters.
“I know from traveling the state and Mike knows that the voters like those laws; it levels the playing field.”
Forced to Spend More
Put leveling the playing field is the whole point of spending over the limit, according to campaign spokesperson Brian McClung.
“We saw that there were a number of liberal groups that were forming to run ads and spend millions and millions of dollars to try to defeat the governor,” McClung explained
He points to The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a political action committee that reported spending $777,000 as of August 21. Much of that money is going to ads attacking Pawlenty’s performance in office.
The group’s main contributor, according to campaign finance reports, is Rockefeller heir Alida Messinger, the ex-wife of Senator Mark Dayton. As of August 21st, Messinger had given a total of $625,000 to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
“So the real story in this campaign isn't necessarily going to be how much Governor Pawlenty spends or Mike Hatch spends,” said McClung, “It's gonna be how much these outside groups are spending and you can't control that. We wanted to be able to raise money, get our message out there.”
Pawlenty TV Spots
That message includes two past-faced TV ads in which Pawlenty speaks directly to the camera while moving amid bold graphics and children. The first addresses his record in general:
“Well our job growth is red hot. We balanced the budget!” the Governor declares as large numbers are flashed onto the screen above and around him.
The second ad – timed for the first day of school – concentrates on the Governor’s proposal to require 70% of a public school budgets to be devoted to the classroom. The idea was introduced in the 2005 and 2006 sessions of the legislature, but never passed.
Many school administrators opposed it, so -- not surprisingly -- Pawlenty pokes fun at them in the ad by standing in front of a faux school door that reads "Assistant to the assistant deputy vice administrator."
In the meantime, Dutcher rejects the notion that liberal groups have forced Pawlenty’s hand, when it comes to the spending limit. She predicts independent spending by liberal groups will be matched or exceeded by conservative interest groups.
“There's a number of high powered, well financed groups that will be doing advocacy ads on behalf of Governor Pawlenty,” Dutcher said.
McClung’s response is that the August 21st spending reports don’t bear out that theory, that independent spending by Republican leaning PACs don’t come anywhere near that of those on the Democratic side.
Bigger Picture Beyond November
Professor Schultz believes, however, that the Republican Party’s huge advantage in fundraising will be devoted to helping Pawlenty in the end. He believes the Governor has another reason to want to surpass the limit: padding his margin of victory.
“If he doesn’t get more than 44% of the vote in November he has trouble on the national stage,” said Schultz. He also believes a larger margin in November would help the Governor claim a mandate, especially with a divided legislature.
By rejecting the spending limits the Governor’s campaign is foregoing $473,000 in public subsidies from the State of Minnesota. Some of that money, says Schultz, will be disbursed to the other candidates. And, by Minnesota campaign finance laws, once Pawlenty exceeds the spending caps all the others are free to do so too.
The question he says, is whether they’ll have the ability or energy to do so. In the meantime, Schultz says, Pawlenty’s opponents will try to turn it into an issue.
“I think the Democrats are hoping that if they can now paint him as big money, special interest, that's going to play well at the polls.”
Peter Hutchinson’s Not on TV
The odd man out in the TV ad wars is Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson, who had only $16,000 on hand on August 21st. He’s banking on voters becoming alienated by the dueling campaign spots.
“We're gonna go meet Minnesotans where they live, not try to talk to them through their television sets. We think Minnesotans want to meet their candidates face to face, not some funny image on the screen,” Hutchinson told KARE last week.
“No offense,” he added, noting he was speaking to a TV crew at the time.
Hutchinson is currently on a tour of greater Minnesota, or a “shoe leather campaign” as he called it. He may be able to get in the adverstising game after the September 12th primary, when he’s due to receive $283,000 in public subsidies. But, Hutchinson concedes, he can’t compete at the Pawlenty or Hatch level.
Nor would he want to, he says.
“That's that old politics where they think they can buy the election by just spending a ton of money.”
Governor’s Race Competing for Dollars
Tons of money will be spent for sure. And yet it’s still not a foregone conclusion that the 2006 governor’s race sets a spending record, says political analyst Steven Smith of Washington University in St. Louis.
Smith says it will also be affected by how much national money is targeted to the US Senate race in Minnesota. He says for many special interest groups, and the national parties as well, the balance of power in the Senate is a more pressing issue.
By John Croman, KARE 11 News.