Money in politics is the ax, we are the wood

Tools of the trade. Call centers become ground zero in the race to raise enough money to spend enough money to win elections. (PHOTO: Bryce Johnson, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We stand miles of hard road from knowing who will be the next representative from Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. Recent history predicts a tight race, both in the contested DFL primary and in the general election. We also know that it will be one of the most closely watched races in the country.

Indeed, control of the U.S. House of Representatives might come down to a couple votes per precinct in Northern Minnesota. Maybe your Auntie Eileen and the guy pulling copper out of old toasters at the dump. Democracy is like that.

But it wasn’t always like this. Candidates, parties and outside influence groups spent more than $17 million on the Eighth District in 2016. Most of that went into negative ads and mailers designed to suppress the vote and, whenever possible, the abstract concept of joy. That number would have been considered high for a statewide race just four years prior. Now it’s merely the opening bid on what they’ll spend on the 8th District this year.

That’s why a small coterie of political experts have already thrown withering glances at the early field of candidates. How dare they show up without fat stacks of cash sticking out of their pockets?

DFLer Leah Phifer dropped out of the race despite demonstrating support and enthusiasm. Why? A few reasons, but money high among them. Despite leading, she failed to win endorsement at the DFL convention. That meant she’d have to join the others — Michelle Lee, Kirsten Kennedy, Jason Metsa and Joe Radinovich — in an expensive open primary she couldn’t afford.

In terms of campaign cash, legislators and longtime political operatives Metsa and Radinovich seem well ahead of the pack. Both raised more than $100,000 in the first quarter of 2018. Lee and Kennedy lag far behind that. So does Independence Party candidate Skip Sandman.

Republican Pete Stauber took the biggest first quarter haul of all: $270,000. But with this purported victory come some grim facts. A) The Democrats together raised more, and will certainly keep pace once the primary is decided. And B) even that is a tiny percentage of the money that will be spent on this race by who knows who from who knows where.

Back to the DFL, consider the last time the DFL nomination was open in 2012. Back then, we had a three-way primary between our current Congressman Rick Nolan, Tarryl Clark and Jeff Anderson. The Steelworkers endorsed Clark. Most considered Anderson the most vocal pro-mining candidate. Nolan, if you remember, was the one that the old boys worried might be soft on mining.

But in fundraising, there was no question that Clark was way out ahead. She raised more than a million dollars. Anderson lagged, raising just more than $172,000 for the cycle. Nolan raised shy of $358,000, considered anemic at the time. But he won that primary and went on to beat incumbent U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack that year.

If all things are equal, there’s more to how we vote than the ads and mailers we see during an election. After all, candidates aren’t really swayed by a thousand bucks here or there, are they? Well, it is human nature to crave security. And security in politics comes from a fast, steady flow of cash from people who would rather you stay on a certain path. In this, all things are not equal.

Money buys the tools of power. The pick and shovel, the ax, the hammer and the splitting maul. If you’re not swinging it, you’re the dirt, the log and eventually the firewood.

Nolan hated fundraising and was vocal about the miserable task of walking across the street from the Capitol to dial for dollars. Truthfully, nearly all members of Congress hate the task, which is why many qualified candidates don’t run. But Nolan was a leader in advocating for campaign finance reform.

It’s not the only issue. It’s not the bread and butter of what this district will debate over the next few months. But reforming the way money interacts with power will determine whether our democracy survives. And that’s just one of the things at stake over the next few months in Minnesota’s Fightin’ Eighth.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 13, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Mike Worcester says

    What campaign reform will be accomplished so long as there exists controlling SCOTUS decisions such as Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo? I ask because I just finished Adam Winkler’s excellent book We The Corporations and it left me wondering how, since we now have the concept of corporate personhood so firmly enshrined, will attempts to scale back the flow of $$ into campaigns, PACS, 527s, and party committees be met by an impregnable wall?

    • Dena Draskovich says

      They can be if constituents stand in solidarity & demand change. Citizens United, for example, serves the 1%. We are the majority. We are the 99%. United we can win.
      Additionally, D8 has had a large, yet mostly ignored, problem with money in politics long before Citizens United. D8 still has this problem.

      Outside financing is the reason Cravaak beat Oberstar. The Kochs wanted him gone.
      Per Cravaak losing, financing was part of a multitude of factors that were likely more influential

      For an in-depth look at Dark Money , I recommend reading Jane Mayer’s book, “Dark Money”. She writes additional pieces for The New Yorker.

      Understanding Dark Money is so important to MN constituents because for the first time the CLF has put brick & mortar on the ground in MN.

      Fight back. Join groups like End Citizens United.

  2. It is almost shocking the amount of money being spent for election campaigns today. When I interviewed Congressman Oberstar and his opponent Jerry Shuster for the 1988 district 8 seat, Jim had $350,000 in his war chest while Mr. Shuster had about $35k. At the end of my article I concluded that Jim Oberstar would be 8th District Representative for as long as he wanted to because he had so much money and name recognition and was liked. How times have changed.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.