Minn. Ad Puts Target At Center Of Campaign Finance Controversy

It put tens of thousands of dollars behind the bid by a GOP gubernatorial candidate.

WASHINGTON -- As a Senate vote this afternoon effectively blocked consideration of the DISCLOSE bill that would put restrictions on some special interest groups' political giving, public disclosure of corporate political money was causing controversy in Minnesota.

Target -- the high-style discount chain -- helped to pay for a TV ad endorsing a candidate for governor. Word of that is causing the retailer some problems.

The ad, which you can see above and online here, gives a full-throated endorsement to Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. "Working to grow jobs. Getting government out of the way. Tom Emmer, the fighter Minnesota needs," the narrator declares.

The group behind the ad is called Minnesota Forward. And the main money behind Minnesota Forward comes from seven companies -- $100,000 from each of them. Target is on that donor list. It also gave Minnesota Forward $50,000 worth of help with branding.

The consultant behind Minnesota Forward is Brian McClung. He tells NPR that the group was made possible by the Supreme Court decision to allow corporate political spending. And, says McClung, companies weigh their priorities when they give money for ads such as that aired by Minnesota Forward.

"Some decisions might upset some folks," McClung says, "but they have to make a decision overall on what they think is the right direction for their business and the community that they're in."

And that's how Target got in a jam.

Emmer is well known as a hardline conservative on social issues. For instance; he opposes gay marriage -- a stance that angers some of Target's employees and customers. The company has been known for its gay-friendly employment policies.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel tried to address such concerns today with a letter to employees. He wrote, that "inclusiveness remains a core value of our company." That said, he added, "I consider it my responsibility to create conditions in which Target can thrive." And Minnesota Forward has pegged Emmer as the pro-growth candidate.

It's exactly this kind of story that makes some corporate leaders worry about sending money into the political fray.

Larry Norton, a former counsel to the Federal Election Commission, says American business seems to be in wait-and-see mode -- for now. But, he adds, "I do think you're going to see a significant uptick in the coming months, in election-related advertising funded by unions, funded by major trade associations and other business organizations."

And when that uptick comes, he says, there's going to be one question asked over & over: "If we make this contribution to you, are you going to have to disclose that we gave it to you?"

Right now, with an ad like the one from Minnesota Forward, the answer is "probably." The company's name probably would be disclosed. Under the DISCLOSE bill, Norton says, the answer would have been a definite "yes."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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