Big takeaways from Minnesota campaign finance reports

Minnesota political races are expensive and negative. That's it. That's the story.

Of course, there's much more to learn from newly released campaign finance data and third-party trackers about just how expensive and how negative. So, let's dive in.

Most expensive congressional race

The rematch between Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Republican Tyler Kistner in Minnesota's second congressional district is now the most expensive congressional contest in state history.

More than $24 million has been spent by the two campaigns and outside groups, according to tracking website Open Secrets.

That's enough to knock the 2018 race between Dean Phillips and Erik Paulsen in Minnesota's third congressional district off the top spot. Roughly $21.9 million got spent in that race, in which Phillips defeated the incumbent Paulsen.

Craig has outspent Kistner by more than a two-to-one margin, but the most significant spending is coming from four outside groups: the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, and the Democratic-backed House Majority PAC.

Outside groups have spent $15 million in the race -- also a record for a Minnesota congressional contest. More than 91% of the outside spending has been on negative efforts against Craig or Kistner, according to Open Secrets data.

"We’re just really seeing this trend in Minnesota and nationwide – a smaller number of competitive races, and so outside groups are just flooding the airwaves with negative ads against their candidate’s opponent," said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor.

The campaigns and third-party groups spent $4.3 million in the race last week, data from AdImpact shows. If that same pace continues over the final week before the Nov. 8 election, the race will approach the $30 million that the candidates have said they expect.

The Craig-Kistner race is considered a toss-up, and there's another variable to consider: the impact of a deceased third-party candidate, Paula Overby. Overby's name is still on the ballot because she died after absentee voting started. 

On Wednesday, the Republican-aligned Right Now USA political action committee launched a website and ads encouraging people to vote for Overby "to honor her commitment" to the pro-legalization movement. A coalition of pro-marijuana groups called it "not only deceptive but also repugnant."

Democrats hold money lead in statewide races

In three of the four statewide races on this year's ballot -- governor, attorney general, and secretary of state -- Democratic candidates hold a money advantage.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz has outspent Republican challenger Scott Jensen, $8.6 million to $4.9 million, since the start of the year. Jensen slightly outraised Walz in the month ending Oct. 24.

But a single third-party group, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, has nearly outspent them both. ABM has spent $13.3 million on negative online and television ads against Jensen, mostly focused on the abortion issue. The group is largely funded by the Democratic Governors Association.

Walz leads Jensen, though the race has tightened in recent weeks. Republican outside groups mostly avoided spending in the race until the past week, when the Republican Governors Association sent $1.5 million into the state via a newly formed group called Heal Minnesota.

Attorney General Keith Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon both have raised and spent more money than their GOP challengers. Polls have shown Ellison trailing or tied with Republican Jim Schultz, while Simon leads challenger Kim Crockett.

In the fourth statewide race, for auditor, Republican Ryan Wilson has outraised and outspent DFL incumbent Julie Blaha.

Across all competitive races, Democrats' TV ads focus on abortion, while Republicans' efforts center on inflation, crime, and President Joe Biden.

"These are also themes that we’re seeing on other competitive races around the country," Pearson said. "The candidates are trying to prime the electorate to think about their issues, where they have the advantage."