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How Much Does Money Matter in Connecticut and Minnesota?

While the Colorado and Georgia elections have gotten more national media attention, there are primaries today in Connecticut and Minnesota as well. In the Nutmeg State, the gubernatorial primaries in both parties have turned into very close contests matching candidates with personal wealth with opponents receiving public financing. And while former wrestling executive Linda McMahon seems to have the GOP Senate primary in hand, it will be interesting to see what sort of protest vote her two challengers receive. In Minnesota, two self-financed candidates for governor, including front-runner and former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, are taking on the officially endorsed DFL candidate in a test of voter turnout strategies.

Speaking of turnout, observers in both CT and MN are speculating about the impact of holding a primary at the peak of vacation time. Even the best-financed campaigns in highly competitive races can wind up throwing resources into the void if voters are checked out.

Both of Connecticut’s gubernatorial primaries feature wealthy front-runners who seem to have lost momentum. Among Democrats, 2006 Senate nominee Ned Lamont began the campaign with high name ID, a lot of progressive support, and plenty of personal money (he committed $9 million to this primary), but has actually campaigned as something of a centrist focused on dealing with CT’s fiscal problems. Former Stamford mayor Dan Malloy, who narrowly lost the 2006 gubernatorial nomination, has been on the offensive for much of the campaign, and has taken multiple shots at Lamont’s links to the financial industry. Down the stretch Lamont has been firing back, drawing attention to an incident in Stamford when Malloy was alleged to have given a no-bid contract to a construction company that did work on his home (an explosive charge in CT, thanks to the scandal that enveloped former Gov. John Rowland).

A subplot in both gubernatorial primaries is Connecticut’s public financing system, which is providing both Malloy and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele with $2.7 million, an amount partially determined by their opponents’ personal spending. The system is in trouble in the courts as part of the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but has survived through primary day.

A late Quinnipiac poll showed Malloy closing to within three points (42-45) of Lamont.

On the Republican side, the wealthy frontrunner is former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who won the state convention endorsement and had a substantial early lead. He hasn’t spent as lavishly as Lamont, but has loaned his campaign $3 million. Coming on strong is Fedele, who in the final Quinnipiac poll has closed to within 8 points (30-38), with a lot of instability evident in public opinion on the race (a third candidate, underfinanced businessman Oz Griebel has 17%). The fate of a closed textile mill in Georgia onced owned by Foley’s investment firm has become a major issue in the campaign, as a symbol of Foley’s alleged indifference to economic suffering.

Both Democrats have double-digit leads over both Republicans in general election polls.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate race, free-spending Linda McMahon, who upset former congressman Rob Simmons to win the state convention endorsement, is expected to beat Simmons (who dropped out of the race, then dropped back in) and Tea Party activist and former Ron Paul advisor Peter Schiff without too much trouble, but her percentage will be watched closely for signs of weakness in her uphill general election battle against Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

In Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (the history-laden label for the Democratic Party in this state) gubernatorial primary is a three-way race involving two self-funders who skipped the state convention process for securing a party endorsement, and the endorsee, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. One self-funder, department store heir Mark Dayton, is obviously well-known as a former U.S. Senator and long-time progressive firebrand, while the other, former state legislator Matt Entenza, is known mainly as the founder of a progressive think tank. Each has put about $3 million in personal money into the campaign, while Kelliher has had to get by through raising just under a million.

Polls have shown Dayton holding a steady lead with Kelliher in a steady second place. The most recent poll, from Survey USA, shows Dayton at 43%, Kelliher at 27%, and Entenza at 22%. Dayton and Kelliher have basically split the major labor endorsements. Her chances probably depend on an aggressive ground game aided by low turnout.

With Tom Emmer certain to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination, the other primary to watch is that of the Independence Party (that third-party legacy of Jesse Ventura), where the state-convention-endorsed and better-funded candidate, former Republican staffer Tom Horner, is expected to defeat publisher Rob Hahn. In general election polls, Horner is definitely pulling some significant Republican votes, which is one reason that all three Democrats are leading Emmer by comfortable margins. That’s significant; aside from the national political mood, the DFL hasn’t won a gubernatorial race in Minnesota since 1986. Retiring governor Tim Pawlenty, who is running for president, would probably prefer not to have a Democratic successor firing shots at him from back home.