Minnesota Gubernatorial Race Spotlights Gay Rights, Campaign Finance Reform

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If you take the issue of gay rights, mix it with a some campaign finance reform, then add some irony, you'll get the dominant narrative to the governor's race in Minnesota.

But the details are a bit more complex.

The contest has turned into a proxy fight over campaign finance reform as gay rights groups protest Target Corp. for contributing money to a group, MN Forward, that ran ads for Ted Emmer, the Republican presumptive nominee to succeed outgoing Tim Pawlenty. The state lawmaker opposes gay marriage, and some Democrats and gay rights activists are calling for a boycott of Target and posting protests on social media websites.

Target and other Minnesota-based companies, including electronics retailer Best Buy Co., donated to MN Forward after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed companies to spend money on elections. The decision overturned prohibitions on corporate campaign spending in about half the states, including Minnesota.

MN Forward has raised more than $1 million from industry trade groups and companies.

Target has defended its donation of $150,000 to MN Forward, saying the Minnesota-based discount retailer remains committed to the gay community. Target chief executive Gregg Steinhafel said its political donations are intended to support business objectives such as job creation.

But the controversy may be less about Emmer’s opposition to gay marriage than the fact that Target is founded by the family of former Sen. Mark Dayton, who is in a tough Democratic primary for the gubernatorial nomination against Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, the Democratic –Farmer-Labor-backed candidate whose supporters launched a separate group, Alliance for a Better Minnesota, to run a massive attack ad campaign against Emmer.

Dayton himself has no ties to Target and has never worked for the company. But if Dayton wins the Aug. 10 primary, there would be plenty of irony in seeing Target oppose the candidate whose family founded it.

And that's not the only reason. The contrast between Emmer's outspoken conservatism and Target's moderate image is striking. Emmer lauds Arizona's strict approach to illegal immigration and once advocated chemical castration for sex offenders. Target is known in Minnesota for donating to public school programs, food pantries and the annual Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.

As of July 19, MN Forward had spent $200,000 on TV ads promoting Emmer as "the fighter Minnesota needs."

MN Forward's money could help Emmer overcome a financial disadvantage with his Democratic rivals. Emmer has raised less than $800,000 this year, compared with nearly $1 million for Kelliher. Dayton and former legislator Matt Entenza, together have put in a combined $6.9 million, mostly their own money --.

at least $2.7 million for Dayton and $4 million for Entenza.

Kelliher, raised almost $1 million from donors from January through mid-July.

Independent expenditure groups on the left have spent more than $1 million attacking Emmer on TV. One of the ads, by Alliance for a Better Minnesota, highlights Emmer's past DWIs.

Emmer, who wasn't widely known across Minnesota before his campaign for governor, hasn't aired any ads of his own and doesn't plan to before Democrats settle on a candidate in August.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.