Democratic candidates for Minnesota governor are crushing their Republican opponents in the fundraising race, a signal GOP donors may be waiting to see whether former Gov. Tim Pawlenty decides to seek his old job.
According to fundraising reports released Thursday, top Democratic candidates ended 2017 with a hefty cash advantage compared to lackluster totals across the GOP field. Rep. Tim Walz led Democrats, raising $1.1 million and entering 2018 with nearly $500,000 still in the bank. The top Republican was 2014 nominee Jeff Johnson, who brought in just $259,000 last year, saving $180,000 to start 2018.
Altogether, six major Republican candidates for governor, including two who dropped out of the race last month, raised just $597,000 in 2017. That's less than the individual haul of former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who collected the second most among Democrats. For every dollar a Republican candidate banked in 2017, Democrats raised $4.75.
The wide-open race to replace Gov. Mark Dayton makes those dollars critical as candidates try to raise their profiles and start building the campaign apparatus necessary to win votes. Republican activists and campaign operatives chalk up the GOP's weak fundraising to one factor: Pawlenty's shadow over the race.
"If Gov. Pawlenty gets in, there are a lot of checks that have been on the sidelines that will go to him immediately," said Kurt Zellers, a former Republican lawmaker and 2014 gubernatorial candidate. "I think there are a lot of folks who are waiting for the elephant in the room."
Though the two-term former governor and one-time presidential candidate has ruled out a run for former Sen. Al Franken's seat, Pawlenty is still weighing another run for the office he left in early 2011. The last Republican to win a statewide election, Pawlenty's near-universal name recognition and fundraising prowess have made him an alluring recruit for the high-stakes governor's race.
And in the latest sign he's taking a potential bid seriously, longtime adviser Brian McClung confirmed Pawlenty was gathering his inner circle for a Feb. 12 meeting to discuss the governor's race.
Rep. Matt Dean dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination last week, and didn't specifically address a question Thursday about whether difficulty fundraising amid the uncertainty surrounding Pawlenty's plan was a factor in his decision. Dean raised $109,000 in 2017.
But as he endorsed Johnson, Dean stressed the need to unite and marshal limited dollars behind a candidate ahead of next week's precinct caucuses. On Thursday, he called the campaign finance reports "a wake-up call for folks to get in the game."
GOP Sen. David Osmek also ended his campaign in January, said he's certain fundraising will eventually flow to a front runner on the Republican side. But he acknowledged that lack of funding made it difficult.
"Every campaign when I was in the race was saying about the same thing: It's just really hard right now, because (donors) don't know who is in and who is out," he said.
Meanwhile, some outside political groups were beginning to put up money in preparation for the November election. The Democratic Governors Association moved $2.4 million into a Minnesota account. The Republican Governors Association has targeted the race but not yet stashed money into its account.