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Winning the Jim Carlson Race Against the Big Money

by Grace Kelly on November 8, 2012

This is the first in a series of articles about this campaign season, from the insider point-of-view. Some topics I will NOT cover because it would give Republicans a huge strategic advantage, but I will advise campaigns directly.

Jim Carlson won the state senate seat in the Eagan Burnsville area in a race that outside Republican PACs flooded with money. The outside PACs bought an unrelenting message of big lies. The reported spending is a half million dollars. In addition, there was unreported spending where the PACs are claiming they don’t have to report the campaign spending, since the words “vote” and “election” were not used. The ads say “Thank You” instead of “Vote.” I estimate that there was $100,000 – $300,000 in unreported outside spending, based on the number of mailed pieces of literature that seemed to go district wide. In the face of all of this, the campaign was spending $50,000. Outside groups and the DFL did also spend money in this race, but it was way under the amount of oppositional spending. As always, the DFL is the underdog fighting against huge disadvantages. We won this time, but this is a serious danger going forward.

Above all, I think we need to know who is behind those anonymous invisible PACs. It could have been the billionaires spending millions on a whim like we buy a cup of coffee. It could have been the corporations that want to harm our environment. It could have been foreign countries who want to extract our Iron Range resources. We don’t know and we should know. For me, this is one of our most urgent legislative priorities. With the supreme court “Citizens United” ruling, we can not stop the spending, but we can make state laws that require disclosure.  
Perhaps one of the saving graces of the campaign was that people literally received inches of literature. One postal carrier said that she was delivering 14 pieces of campaign literature in one day. The sheer volume let people know that someone was trying to buy the election, so I think it made people more cautious. However, the “Thank You” lit pieces were widespread across many campaigns. Those pieces may have had impact elsewhere where there was less lit.

Here is the other problem: People will tell you that literature and attack ads don’t work. They do work.  People just don’t realize the negative ads are working. Corporations have developed marketing to an absolute science where they know how to imperceptibly influence decisions.

The Jim Carlson campaign was hit with literature attacks, but it could have easily have been radio ads, TV ads or newspaper ads. I think that Eagan Burnsville is too integrated with the Twin Cities market to be targeted by radio ads, TV ads or newspaper ads. A place like Bemidji could be more targeted with other media.

I think we need to start educating voters now that big money is trying to tell them how to vote. So with introductory pieces, we have to also send out introductory inoculation pieces that the big money may come in this race. People have to be warned and ready.

The half million dollars and more spent on the Jim Carlson race means the unlimited spending has now reached small local races. We need to both defend against this with disclosure laws and adapt our campaigns. Based on this election, I would make this the most important priority for change.  

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