When it comes to money in politics, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., often complains that there is just too much of it.
But when Franken called the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the door for corporations, unions and individuals to spend unlimited amounts on candidates a “disaster” earlier this month, his impassioned Senate floor speech disguised a central fact of his campaign, and that of his Republican opponent, businessman Mike McFadden.
Both are benefiting from a sophisticated network of donors and committees that have flourished in the wake of the legal decisions Franken and others often criticize.
The U.S. Senate race between Franken and McFadden is not expected to be the most expensive statewide race in the country but both campaigns are expected to spend millions.
So far, Franken has raised $15 million and has spent about $12 million. More than $1.5 million of that has come from joint fundraising committees, which allow candidates and political parties to team-up and split the proceeds from a fundraising event.
Such funds aren’t new, but they have proliferated in recent years. After another Supreme Court decision earlier this year lifted the total amount a single donor can give to candidates, PACs, and other fundraising entities, they’ve become far more popular, said Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on campaign finance and elections.
Following the court’s ruling in McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission, donors still are limited in how much they can give a candidate. But joint fundraising committees allow a single donor to cut a much larger check to be divided among candidates, Noble said.
“They allow wealthy donors to give a lot more money,” Noble said. “It makes sense for the candidate to partner with as many different entities as they can.”
When the court announced its decision this spring, Franken said it was a terrible one because it gives “wealthy, well-funded corporate interests undue influence, access, and power.”
Nevertheless, Franken and the Minnesota DFL established their joint-fundraising committee earlier this year, which so far has netted Franken’s campaign at least $192,000.
Franken said he’s playing by a set of rules that he ultimately disagrees with.
“I wish there wasn’t a need for progressives to form committees like that,” Franken said. “But because of these decisions, they do. We can’t unilaterally disarm.”
McFadden, who has so far raised nearly $4.2 million to compete against Franken, is associated with at least three joint-fundraising committees.
McFadden agrees with Franken that money plays an outsize role in campaigns.
“I’m right in the middle of the storm,” McFadden said. “My observation is that there’s way too much money in political campaigns. It’s crazy.”
But McFadden also said he’d use caution in limiting spending if it meant violating free speech rights.
That was the Supreme Court’s reasoning when it issued its controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010. At the time, the court said that the government can’t regulate corporate free speech. The decision led to the rise of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals to benefit a few candidates, so long as the PAC doesn’t coordinate with the candidates’ campaigns.
Franken, who recently co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, has the backing of at least two super PACs this election cycle. And McFadden is benefiting from the backing of five political groups, including super PACs like the Heartland Campaign Fund, which is dedicated entirely to helping him win.
So far, the Heartland Campaign Fund has spent more than $50,000 on radio ads opposing Franken. It is bankrolled mostly by a single donor: West Coast Venture Capital has given the committee $100,000. The company’s owner, California businessman Carl Berg, has given McFadden at least $5,200 according to campaign finance reports.
The Supreme Court decisions have given wealthy donors maximum flexibility in how they support candidates, Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said.
“It’s really opened up the possibility for individuals and donors to make more contributions, to more entities at a greater amount than they could have done a year ago,” he said.
Take Seth MacFarlane, a top Franken donor and creator of the cartoon sitcom “Family Guy.” He has given $5,000 to Franken’s 2014 re-election bid.
But MacFarlane has also donated $10,000 to the Franken Senate Victory 2014 fund, which is a joint-fundraising committee with the Minnesota DFL party, $5,000 to the WIN Minnesota Federal PAC, which was created to help Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan of the 8th Congressional District, and $10,000 to the Minnesota DFL.
Donors, Near and Far
While both Franken and McFadden rely on wealth donors to support their campaigns, their money also comes from people who give small amounts — so small that their names aren’t listed on campaign finance reports.
More than half of Franken’s campaign support comes from small dollar donors, and most of those donations are under $100, according to his campaign.
But both candidates’ fundraising networks extend far beyond Minnesota.
Of the $4 million large donations McFadden has to detail for the government, nearly $1.5 million have come from people as far away as Alaska.
Based on the latest data from the Federal Elections Commission, roughly 75 percent of Franken’s large dollar donations come from out of state.
“It suggests both sophistication in terms of knowing how to convince people from elsewhere in the country they ought to give to your race,” Schultz said. “But it also suggests the level of importance donors attach to that particular race.”
Despite all the money pouring in, whether the Minnesota Senate race ends up being one of the most contested in the country — and the most expensive — may not be clear until the last weeks of the election, Schultz said.
“Franken, McFadden complain about big money but still rake it in” from Minnesota Public Radio (c) 2014. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.