8th District DFLers wrestle with finances in their own ways
When Tuesday's primary is all said and done, the tale of "How the 8th Congressional District DFL Was Won" is going to have its say about the role money plays in an election.
A broad spectrum of candidates make up the five-person field of Democratic-Farmer-Laborers in the CD8 race — a mayor, part-time hotel clerk, retired newscaster and a pair of Iron Range-bred political veterans. Their levels of financial support have been as disparate as their backstories.
The race's two political veterans, Joe Radinovich and state Rep. Jason Metsa, harbor abundant financial resources and are using them in vastly different ways. Radinovich is all in on media — proliferating both his face and message across the district by spending large chunks of money at a time on advertising.
"It's tough to put a full argument in 30 seconds," Radinovich said — articulating what amounts to a first-world election problem.
By contrast, Metsa hasn't bought any television airtime, choosing to spend his money on a payroll this summer amounting to roughly $40,000 per month.
"We're not spending our money with polls or TV consultants," Metsa said. "We're out there investing in the work it takes to get the message out to the people."
The race's "have nots" when it comes to bankrolls — Michelle Lee, Kirsten Kennedy and Soren Sorensen — tend to measure their campaigns in social currency and by reading the fuel gauge.
"At the end of the debate in Braham (Minn.), somebody gave me $22 cash," Sorensen said. "It went directly into my Wells Fargo campaign account. And then I was able to take it and put it in the gas tank and drive home. Money has been tight, but it's been enough."
Money and how it's acquired, spent, talked about, thrown around, parted with, accounted for, attacked, defended or worked around has been a driving topic in the 8th District DFL race.
Both Radinovich and Metsa have nearly $60,000 and $70,000 in cash on hand at last check, respectively, having both spent tens of thousands of dollars already. They've been targeted by opponents for conducting fundraisers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area — decidedly outside the 8th District but unquestionably legal. The candidate with the least amount of money, Sorensen, has used Twitter to troll the candidate with the most overall, Radinovich, throughout the campaign. Radinovich in turn has called for special interest money to come out of the "government." Opponents simultaneously call on him to condemn the tens of thousands of political action committee dollars being spent on his behalf. Round and round it goes.
"I've heard him say that about 'special interests' in debates," Sorensen said of Radinovich, "and I'm sure that if you zoomed in pixel by pixel I'd be rolling my eyes."
Radinovich defended his campaign by noting the scarcity of truly contested seats throughout the United States, and the money attracted by those seats that are hard-won.
"You look at the 8th (District), the 1st (District) in southern Minnesota, or the suburban 3rd District," Radinovich said. "A lot of people outside the district contribute to races like that. A lot of those followers recognize that when we share values we have to make sure — we have to win — the legislative margin. That means winning in the tougher seats."
On the day this week that Vice President Mike Pence came to Duluth for a private fundraiser at an undisclosed location supporting CD8 GOP-endorsee Pete Stauber, Lee announced a promise to conduct no such exclusive events. Her news release said, "I'm sick of our political process being hijacked by PACS, corporations or funding oligarchs of the Democratic Party."
Lee is a paradox in the race for having built her name in Duluth as a decades long nightly TV news anchor. Now as a candidate, she can't afford to put her face on TV. During a coffee shop interview at her de facto headquarters at the Field Station Cafe in Proctor, Lee talked about campaigning on a tight budget (about $12,500 cash on hand at last check).
"Our average donation is $100," she said. "I think about what they're giving up and not buying with it. ... It's a huge responsibility to make sure I stay true to their concerns."
Lee said she drew inspiration from others such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in an earlier primary beat a Democratic incumbent in New York's 14th Congressional District despite Ocasio-Cortez being a political outsider who was outspent four-to-one. Lee has traveled most of the district's 27,000 square miles, she said, listening to stories and piecing together an understanding of its people that is deeper than what's best for Duluth and the Iron Range.
"You need money to buy the slick TV ads, to get the newspaper and the radio attention," Lee said. "We don't have those big dollars. We're doing what we can and that is through circles of people — you touch one person and you listen to their concerns and they come on board."
If Radinovich is behaving like an incumbent and Lee an upstart, then Sorensen is the provocateur, and North Branch mayor Kennedy is everyone's favorite sibling — a candidate who appealed to delegates and party leadership at spring convention but not enough to earn their support.
With a paltry $2,100 cash on hand at last check, the Kennedy campaign said it has taken a different tack. She has chosen to push her social media presence and attend lots of live gatherings and events in favor of making phone calls and door-knocking, which the campaign said, "is just increasing in intensity and turning voters off on voting altogether."
Metsa is the closest thing to what 8th District voters have known for most of the last 40 years — a range Democrat with concerns for building infrastructure and how families pay their bills.
The Metsa campaign has been rolling out a well-funded ground game — radiating it from his hometown Virginia and taking it throughout the Iron Range and parts beyond. Along the way he's garnered more union endorsements than the other camps combined.
In some ways, Metsa is using his money to campaign like those who would be called the "have nots." He's putting a premium on face-to-face contact.
"I believe in organizing and developing talent on a campaign," Metsa said. "Everyone on our staff makes a living wage. I believe what it takes to win an election like this is going neighbor to neighbor."