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Andrew Falk in the aftermath of defeat

Representative Andrew Falk, right, visits with a candidate after a debate last fall. Falk said negative campaigning paid for largely by money from outside the district drowned out his message and kept voter turnout low, all to his detriment. (TRIBUNE/File)

MURDOCK — Negative campaign messages and a loud drum beat paid for largely by money from political action committees outside the district drowned out his campaign message and turned off many would-be supporters, said Representative Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, in the wake of his November election defeat.

He believes frustration with negative ads caused some would-be supporters to stay away from the polls.

“This was far and away the most negative campaign I have ever been a part of,’’ Falk said.

He was thwarted in his bid for a fourth term as the District 17A representative in a rematch with Republican challenger Tim Miller, R - Prinsburg.

The amount of money spent on this and other legislative races will not be known until February, when all campaign contributions must be reported. According to Falk, the District 17 House races featuring his contest and Republican Dave Baker’s successful campaign against DFL incumbent Mary Sawatzky were on track to be among the leading house districts in terms of campaign expenditures.

An analysis of campaign spending reports for District 17A by the Star Tribune and reporter Glenn Howatt tallied $295,603 in expenditures for 2013 and 2014 up through the pre-general election filing. The total includes money raised by the candidates: $30,084 for Miller and $54,715 for Falk.

That compares to $210,803.52 in independent expenditures. The independent expenditures included $89,368 either for the Republican candidate or against the DFL candidate, and $121,434 either for the DFL candidate or against the Republican candidate.

The 2014 election saw an emphasis on races for the house of representatives. The St. Cloud Times and reporter Mark Sommerhauser analyzed outside expenditures in the District 14B race and tallied an unprecedented $613,000 total. The race featured Rep. Zachary Dorfholt, DFL-St. Cloud, against former Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud.

State-wide, voters turnout was down from 2012, with the state turnout measured at 50.22 percent.

Tim Miller won the District 17A re-match with fewer votes than he collected in their 2012 contest. The 2014 election saw Miller the winner by a 8,453 to 6,789 tally.

Falk saw his vote total drop by 3,700 from 2012. Miller saw his support erode only by 503 votes. The 2012 election was Falk’s by a 10,489 to 8,956 tally.

“We were hearing negative radio ads three times every hour on the stations out here,’’ Falk said of the final days of the 2014 campaign.

Falk said he repeatedly heard from voters who told him the negative campaign had turned them off. “I heard this time and time again that there is just so much negative stuff I am not going to vote. I would tell them: Then you are playing into exactly what they are trying to accomplish.’’

He also believes that complacency by supporters hurt him in the mid-term election.

“I had so many people say ‘Oh, you are in such good shape. You are going to win by 20 points, we’re not worried about you,’ ’’ Falk said.

His greatest frustration was his inability to have his campaign messages heard above the flood of materials and advertisements from outside groups, whether for or against him.

A candidate has no control over the content of mailings and other advertisements by outside groups, Falk noted. Although there will be no way to know until final reports are filed in February, Falk said he believes that outside spending in the district will be at its highest since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 2010 ruling eliminated the ban on how much money corporations, unions and other organizations can contribute, as long as the money goes to political action committees and not directly to the candidates.

Said Falk: “…the most saddening point from a candidate’s view with Citizens United is that the candidate’s voice and the positions and ideas and visions that you are trying to articulate get drowned out.”

Falk said his campaign focused on the accomplishments of the past legislative session, and themes including the need for investments in transportation, early childhood education and day care for rural working families, and holding down higher education costs.

A campaign aimed at DFL House incumbents across the state struck up topics such as same-sex marriage, the Senate office building and federal health care, Falk said. To his surprise, he said the campaign also attempted to raise questions about his rural residency and cast him as a “metro” legislator. “And I am one of only a few farmers (in the legislature) living on a farm,’’ he said.

He has no regrets about supporting same-sex marriage, although he is sure it motivated some to vote against him. “If I am in that category of people who lost elections because I stood on the side of expanded rights and freedom and decency and treating others like you’d like to be treated, I am OK with that,’’ he said.

He supports the vote for the Senate office building as well, stating that it remains the most fiscally responsible decision given the needs in the Capitol.

He charges that ads that attempted to link him to President Obama and federal health care legislation are an example of how outside money can unfairly influence politics on the local level. “They kept pounding me on bringing Obamacare to Minnesota. That’s a federal program. I don’t vote on federal programs,’’ Falk said.

Overall, he worries that the inability to have his message heard above the loud voice of outside interests may have hurt him most. He carried Montevideo by 436 votes in 2012, but lost it by 30 votes in 2014. Falk said that he and State Senator Lyle Koenen had worked hard to include $2.7 million in the bonding bill to complete the community’s flood levee, and he wishes that residents there would have realized what it took.

From a big picture perspective, Falk said he can only question how an increase in outside campaign money can be good for democracy or middle class and working families.

He worries that the negative themes will contribute to gridlock and more polarization in St. Paul. Creating legislation requires working together, he said. “People who won on these negative platforms are going to have a very hard time governing,” Falk said.

As for his future, Falk said he has not made any decisions. “In one sense it’s kind of a clean slate for me. I can pursue some other ideas and projects that I just couldn’t do before.’’ He intends to spend more time with his wife, Marnie, and their 1-year-old daughter, and support his wife in her career.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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