A look at business, labor spending on Northland campaigns

Take a trip through the list of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's and Stewart Mills' top individual contributors, and a few common words pop out: Chairman, CEO, president, principal, manager, owner.


Take a trip through the list of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s and Stewart Mills’ top individual contributors, and a few common words pop out: Chairman, CEO, president, principal, manager, owner.

Don’t say business and politics don’t mix.

From the top of the ballot on down, business and labor groups have showered support on candidates ahead of Tuesday’s election. The reason seems simple: Political influence, history has shown, can be bought. But that might not always be the case.

“There’s a very chicken and egg question on this,” said Pete Quist, research director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics and “Are they giving to candidates so they may be able to sway opinions? Or do they already represent their interests?

Either way, business and labor groups give money to candidates, and so do their political and lobbying associations.
The Center for Responsive Politics says if you separate political action committees (PACs) into business, labor and ideological interests, business is far and away the biggest giver.


Plus: “The base of large individual donors is predominantly made up of business executives and professionals,” according to the center, which runs

People vote with their money at businesses, so the saying goes, and business turns that around to try to shape the vote.

Big spenders

The most spending on the St. Louis County ballot is by and large coming from the Nolan/Mills race - one of the most expensive House contests in the country.

Many of the top donors for Mills, according to the Federal Election Commission, include Twin Cities business executives from outside the district, such as Primera Technology President Robert Cummins, API Group owner Lee Anderson and U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis.

Mills’ largest single donor is himself, however, though he has been the benefactor of millions in independent spending as well.

Nolan, who leads in individual donations due to volume of donors rather than size of individual gifts, also counts out-of-district business leaders among his big supporters - Minneapolis Radiation Oncology President Robert Haselow, Graves Hospitality President James Graves and venture capitalist Vance Opperman.

Locally, Allete Inc. CEO Al Hodnik’s family also passed along several thousand to Nolan.


The congressman also received far more money from business and labor organizations than did Mills. Large donors included PACs of many of the trade and industrial unions as well as American Crystal Sugar Co., Delta Air Lines and the National Association of Realtors, to name just a few.

Mills received plenty of support from party- and ideology-affiliated PACs but can count only the National Association of Home Builders, Associated Builders and Contractors, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. and National Federation of Independent Business as business PACs who gave more than $3,000 to his campaign.

But whether business interests are giving to so-called “dark money” groups - those able to receive and spend unlimited amounts of money buying airtime and influencing races due to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United case - is an open question.

“It’s really hard to tell. When we’re talking about dark money we’re mostly talking about 501(c)4 groups. They can be named pretty vaguely and spend a lot of money,” Quist said. “Business leagues and unions are similarly structured - we can’t see who their donors are - but we have a pretty good idea what their interests are.”

So-called “independent expenditures” by these groups have reached $29.3 million in Minnesota alone - more than half of that getting spent on the District 8 race.

According to a News Tribune analysis, as of Thursday over $7.3 million had been spent opposing Nolan and more than $7.7 million spent opposing Mills.

Local coffers

State Legislature races on the ballot fell far short of the spending reached in the congressional money pit. According to the state Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board, the most expensive legislative contest St. Louis County voters have before them is for District 6 senator, clocking in at just north of $60,000.


Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates outraised Republicans in every race and had far more union support.

That mirrors a national trend, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which shows labor spending overwhelmingly going to Democrats. Meanwhile, business PACs are more than twice as likely to support Republicans.

That’s not always the case, with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership Fund and Minnesota Business Partnership PAC giving District 3A DFL Rep. Robert Ecklund a combined $1,000.

Some of the biggest donors to DFLers included the Committee of Automotive Retailers; PACs for IBEW Minnesota State Council, Minnesota Nurses Association, North Central States Carpenters and Education Minnesota.

One of the biggest donors for some Republican candidates? Stewart Mills.

Small support, big office

The biggest race on the ballot saw some of the lowest area fundraising. Hillary Clinton has cashed roughly $98,000 in checks from Northeastern Minnesota donors, according to Federal Election Commission data. While the Democrat has enjoyed more than $4.4 million in support from Minnesota, she is virtually tied in Northeastern Minnesota donations with a former foe: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Republican Donald Trump has raised just more than $32,000 from donors in Northeastern Minnesota, according to federal data. Regional business leaders were among those supporting Trump, but a few dished out for Clinton as well.


Brooks Johnson was an enterprise/investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune from 2016 to 2019.
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