Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paid Party Media and Outrageous Outrage

The Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus sent out a press release yesterday about an issue they perceive with the Senate DFL Caucus paying an accredited member of the capitol press corps.

The member of the press corps in question is Shawn Towle, who has received about $40,000 in payments from the Senate DFL Caucus over the past few years.

Bill Glahn first had the story of Towle's hiring by the DFL (and simultaneous listing as an accredited member of the capitol press corps) in February.

While I agree with Glahn that Towle's dual status as paid by a political party and member of the press is problematic, I could not disagree more about the way the MNSRC has attempted to make this into a scandal.

The language in the MNSRC's press release is so laughably over the top it's hard to read it with a straight face. They accuse Majority Leader Tom Bakk of "secret payments" to Towle and say that Bakk's actions damage "the integrity of the Senate."

There are a few issues with the MNSRC's press release. 

First, as the Star Tribune pointed out in their story on the matter, the Majority Leader does not issue press credentials, the Sergeant at Arms does, a fact that the MNSRC either didn't know, or didn't care to be accurate about.

Additionally, there are no "secret payments" being made. The payments being made to Towle are all disclosed on campaign finance reports, which is why this topic came up in the first place. To characterize disclosed information as "secret" takes either an amazing imagination or a complete misunderstanding of the English language.

There is nothing untoward or unusual about the arrangement of a party unit like the DFL Senate Caucus hiring a vendor to do research. It happens all the time, and as Towle points out, both Republicans and Democrats have hired him as a vendor in the past.  And while I understand that there are people who don't like Shawn Towle, hiring someone you don't like doesn't make that practice unethical or illegal.

What makes this particular situation problematic is Towle doing paid party work while also maintaining his press credentials. On this point, there are few besides Towle himself who defend his actions.

Senate Rule 16.1(a), which the MNSRC claims that Tom Bakk has somehow violated, states:
The Sergeant at Arms may not issue credentials or day passes under this rule to political organizations. For the purposes of this rule, "political organization" means an organization owned or controlled by a registered lobbyist, a political party, or any party organization.
This rule, along with a number of other rules pertaining to media credentialing was put in place in 2011 when Republicans had control of the Senate. Prior to that point, credentialing was overseen by partisan staff.  The change in rules was spearheaded by Michael Brodkorb, who was the Senate Communications Director.  Brodkorb invited David Brauer from MinnPost and conservative blogger Mitch Berg to participate in crafting the new rules, which opened up floor access to members of new media for the first time.

I spoke Brodkorb to get some background on this matter.  He told me the rule in question was created to make sure that political units (like a state party) could not take advantage of the new more open rules to say, get a tracker media credentials.  Brodkorb explained that situations like Towle's dual role was not something they dealt with at the time of the crafting, but that the intent of the rules was to make access more universally available to all members of the media, regardless of viewpoint, while not allowing staffers of political parties to exploit the openness.

The problem for the MNSRC is that there is no credible way to claim that Towle is a political party or a party organization, which is what is actually prohibited.  So while Towle's behavior may violate a rule in spirit, it doesn't in fact.

If the MNSRC really wanted to deal with the issue of credentialed members of the press receiving payments from political parties, there were a number of things they could have done to actually solve that problem. 

First of all, they could have directed their communication to the person who is actually in charge of credentialing, the sergeant at arms.  (In fact, the sergeant of arms was quite receptive to looking into this issue when he was contacted by the City Pages.)

Second, Senator David Hann, who is on the Rules committee, could have brought this issue up to that committee for discussion.

Instead of going down one of those productive paths, Hann and the MNSRC chose to dash out an over-the-top press release accusing Bakk of secret payments and shady deals, thereby ensuring that nothing will be done about this legitimate concern. In their zeal to score cheap political points, they could not bother to get their facts straight, and looked like fools in the media.

Unfortunately this is the standard method of operation in the Senate these days, as fact-free hyperventilating press releases seem to be a daily occurrence, as if they are a substitute for legitimate strategy.

It's disappointing to me that the MNSRC would take what should have been a slam dunk issue and screw up the execution so terribly.  However this isn't the first time I have been disappointed by incompetence in the MNSRC, and it certainly won't be the last.  If Republicans are looking for a scandal they should really focus some attention at why we accept such incompetence to go unchecked in the Senate.

In the meantime, while Senate staffers are high-fiving themselves over their latest totally awesome press release, the real underlying issue of party-paid members of the media will go unaddressed.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The State of the Governor's Race, April Edition

First quarter fundraising results were due this week in the Minnesota Governor's race, which provides a good opportunity to review the race as is currently stands.

Bottom line: the fundraising results on the Republican side were disappointing. Most candidates didn't raise enough money, and some who did don't have any left.  Everyone needs to do better if we don't want another 4 years of Governor Mark Dayton.

I think we're suffering from a glut of candidates at this point, and several campaigns are going to have an increasingly hard time justifying their continued existence.

I'll review the campaigns as I see them, based not only on fundraising results, but my overall impressions of the campaigns so far. 

Jeff Johnson
Although I am undecided in the Governor's race, Johnson is the only candidate who I have ruled out supporting.  Simply put, I don't think he can win.

Johnson raised an abysmal $32,000 in the first quarter, despite the fact that he is one of the candidates who is not encumbered by being in the legislature, and he is accepting PCR contributions.  This embarrassing performance makes me wonder if Team Johnson was even aware they had a report due at all.

Johnson's campaign peaked early, with a win at the State Central straw poll last year, but it's been downhill ever since. He finished a distant third in the statewide straw poll in early February, and it's clear that had a negative impact on his fundraising. Winning the straw poll in his own Congressional District didn't do anything to get the funds flowing.

The Johnson campaign spent almost double what it took in during the first quarter, and the expenses were mostly on mail and staff salary- not an ongoing investment in fundraising. In fact, Johnson told the Star Tribune that he would not be focusing on fundraising between now and the state convention, instead expecting money to "loosen up considerably" after the endorsement.

This is a silly strategy that is a proven loser.

Johnson supporters will point out that he is sitting on about $140,000 in cash, which is more than some other campaigns, but significantly less than Governor Dayton has.

In my opinion Johnson's cash balance would be a great start for a campaign for Attorney General, something Johnson should seriously consider at this point. 

Dave Thompson
I have always liked Dave Thompson. One of the things I like best about him is how straightforward and direct he is. There is something appealing about someone who is unapologetic about their beliefs. Whether you agree or not, you always know where he stands.

Thompson's campaign for Governor, however, has not caught the fire it needs to go forward to victory in November. Thompson limped into 2014 with $125,000 raised for the year and about $50,000 cash on hand. In the first quarter he added about $67,000 to his total, but spent about $80,000. His cash on hand shows $37,000, but he has outstanding debt of $26,000, leaving him with an actual cash balance of around $10,000.  As a comparison, Dayton is sitting on $730,000 in the bank.

In addition, Thompson has made some missteps that chip away at his straightforward image, including being evasive about missing a vote in the Senate to attend a fundraiser, and a truly bizarre telephone call into a radio show earlier this week related to drunk driving immunity for legislators.

Thompson made a bold move by selecting fellow Senator Michelle Benson as his running mate early in the process- a decision which has worked out almost too well.  As the Thompson campaign has failed to catch fire the murmurs about how the campaign would work better as Benson/Thompson have gotten louder.

Thompson would make a formidable Attorney General candidate, and one I could support wholeheartedly, but his path to the Governor's mansion seems to be getting narrower by the day. 

Marty Seifert
I wasn't in Minnesota for the 2010 Governor's race, so I don't have any of the baggage that many others do related to that time period. From that perspective I can only look at Seifert's performance in this race, not the last one.

Of the three candidates seriously vying for the Republican Party Endorsement, Seifert is in the best financial position, despite having been in the race the least amount of time. Seifert raised and spent about $64,000 in the first quarter, and has about $140,000 in the bank.

Interestingly enough, delegates don't seem to be punishing Seifert for his stance on not abiding by the endorsement. He was the straw poll winner in February, slightly edging out Thompson, who is abiding. Some delegates seem to be having a bit of buyer's remorse about their choice in 2010, and want to give Seifert a shot this time around.

Seifert has done a very good job of inserting himself into media coverage- frequently holding press conferences or media availabilities to push back against Dayton's messaging.  There is still work to be done in that regard, but he is by far the most aggressive of the candidates at getting media coverage- which is a good thing.

Seifert's comments about fundraising in the Star Tribune earlier this week were quite frustrating, but I am glad to see him bring a professional fundraiser on board, and I hope it's not too little too late. 

Kurt Zellers
To me, Zellers has always been the most confusing candidate in this race. After a brief stint as Speaker of the House of Representatives that most Republicans look at as pretty disastrous, it was assumed by many that Zellers would not run.

But he is running, and he has raised the second most of any candidate so far, despite basically ignoring the party process for endorsement.  Zellers brought in $91,000 in the first quarter, spent $127,000 and has about $80,000 in the bank.

Ignoring the party endorsement process is not a bad thing in my book, and Zellers' fundraising performance has shown that it hasn't hurt him.  In fact, the candidates who are not abiding by the endorsement (Zellers and Honour) have outraised the others who are abiding (or in Seifert's case heavily participating).

Zellers has a very likable personality that could appeal to a primary electorate, and would be a very formidable candidate against Dayton, if it weren't for that pesky two years as Speaker and all the baggage they will bring.

I continue to think Zellers is the candidate that most people are underestimating, and he may continue to surprise.

I can't quite figure the Zellers campaign out, but I'm not ready to count it out. 

Scott Honour
Honour is the most well-funded of all of the Republican candidates. In the first quarter he outraised Johnson, Seifert, and Thompson combined, and that's before you add in the $50,000 he loaned his campaign.

Honour also spends his money. He spent $186,000 in the first quarter and about $600,000 in 2013. And while you can argue about the wisdom of some of the expenses ($250 at Starbucks, guys? Really?) money that is raised is supposed to be spent.

I understand that some within the Republican Party have decided that being able to raise money (and even self-fund) is a bad thing, but I would encourage them to look back at our win/loss record as of late to gain some perspective.

Honour himself has improved as a candidate quite a bit since the early days of his campaign, but he still has quite a way to go if he really wants to be competitive.

It's clear that Republican conventions and Tea Party meetings aren't Honour's comfort zone, but thankfully the importance of those types of gatherings will decrease as we move into the next phase of the campaign.

I'm glad that Honour is going to a primary, and I look forward to seeing how his presence challenges the other primary candidates to compete. 

Norm Coleman
OK, Norm's not running, despite my pleas, which were only half-joking.

The reality is that a big name like Coleman could easily step in at this stage of the race, and become immediately competitive.  And that's a problem.

Again, if we're serious about defeating Mark Dayton in November, some campaigns have some serious soul searching to do.

Either step it up, or step down, but time is running out.

Monday, April 7, 2014

In the US Senate Race, It's McFadden

In the race to defeat Al Franken this November, my choice is Mike McFadden.

The candidates for US Senate have been on the trail for several months now, and in that time no major policy differences have emerged between the two major candidates - McFadden and State Senator Julianne Ortman.

Both candidates have made what I will generously call "missteps" in identifying their policy positions - McFadden on guns, Ortman on Obamacare, and both on immigration - but after "clarification" from their campaigns have brought their views into alignment with each other, and within the mainstream of Republican thought.

Comparing the candidates on the issues is a bit tough, as McFadden has an "Issues" page on his website, but Ortman's "News/Issues" page just links to some blog posts.

However, I did listen to Ortman in an interview with Mitch Berg on AM1280 a few weeks ago, and found it telling that when Berg asked her to explain why voters should prefer her in this race, she gave two reasons- first that she would abide by the Republican party's nomination, and then when pressed, she said that she wasn't a candidate who was "hand-picked" by Washington D.C.  She passed on the opportunity to note any differences in policy.

In the absence of major policy differences, one must look at the other factors that go into winning an election- namely fundraising, organization, and electability.  On all three of these factors, McFadden is the clear winner.


On the fundraising front, McFadden out-raised Ortman in 2013 by almost 10x ($237k to $2.2 million) and ended the year with more than 13x the cash on hand ($117k to $1.6 million).

McFadden is expected to announce another high six figure total in the first quarter of 2014, adding significantly to his lead in this area, and making the gap very difficult to close for Ortman.

I will note, however, that both challengers significantly lag behind Franken, who ended 2013 with over $4 million in his campaign account.


On the organization side, the advantage also goes to McFadden.

Ortman's Campaign Manager is Andy Parrish, who saw success managing the campaign of Michele Bachmann for Congress in 2006, and then saw some early success in Bachmann's 2012 presidential run in Iowa, which eventually fizzled out.

Parrish then returned to Minnesota, where he was Deputy Campaign Director for Minnesotans for Marriage, the group campaigning for the Marriage Amendment in 2012, which was soundly defeated despite initial public support of the measure.

In his role at MFM, Parrish made headlines for his $10,000 per month salary.  Ortman's campaign got him at the discounted rate of $6,500 per month in 2013, where his salary accounted for about 10% of all expenses.

On the McFadden side, the campaign is being managed by Brad Herold, who hails from Florida and has extensive state-wide field operations experience there. 

McFadden also has a number of other experienced staffers working on his campaign.  Tom Erickson, serving as Deputy Campaign Manager was formerly with the MN Jobs Coalition and Coleman for US Senate.  Kristen Sheehan is serving as McFadden's finance director. Sheehan served as political director for Norm Coleman's 2008 campaign against Franken. And at the end of 2013 McFadden picked up Kevin Poindexter, a Minnesota native who most recently worked on Chris Christie's successful re-election for Governor of New Jersey.

The salaries paid by McFadden's campaign are more in line with what you'd expect for a campaign at this point. Erickson and Herold's salaries combined are about equal with Parrish's.

Salaries made up about 12% of McFadden's total expenses in 2013, slightly higher than Ortman's rate, though those salaries were spread over 6 staffers to Ortman's one.


Electability is always a subjective measure, but I will remind you once again that there have been no substantive policy differences outlined in this race. 

So we're not talking about a moderate RINO squish establishment type vs. a proven rock-ribbed conservative as some would have you believe.

On the contrary, Julianne Ortman, when explaining why she introduced a tax increase in the MN Senate in 2009, described her views on taxes as "somewhere in the fiscal middle".  In 2012 she was challenged for the GOP endorsement from the right in her own Senate district, as some of the local activists felt she was too moderate for the district.

During this campaign, however, Ortman has attempted to veer to the far right, picking up endorsements from Sarah Palin, Citizens United, and a collection of no-name Tea Party groups. These endorsements may help her secure the Republican Party endorsement, but will hurt her in the general election.

I understand why Andy Parrish is trying to make Julianne Ortman into Michele Bachmann- after all it's the only recipe that he knows. Why Ortman is actively participating in this redefinition, I will never understand.  This tack to the far right doesn't fit her, and it's already lost her some support, including my own.  If she goes on to win the primary election, it will lose her more support as we head toward November.

McFadden, on the other hand, is the proverbial blank slate. As a first-time office seeker, he has no legislative record to define him.  He does, however, have the DFL/ABM alliance to do that for him. His team needs to begin the process of defining him quickly, and should do it forcefully.

McFadden has taken a more "slow and steady" tack so far in this race, eschewing divisive high profile endorsements in favor of keeping his head down and doing the hard work necessary to raise money and build an organization that can win. I believe this work will pay off down the road, and his campaign gives us the best shot of winning an uphill battle in November.