Oct 20, 2022 - Politics

Down-ballot battles: Race for Minnesota auditor heats up

Photo illustration of Julie Blaha and Ryan Wilson.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Minnesota Office of the State Auditor, courtesy of Ryan Wilson's campaign

The typically sleepy state auditor's race is shaping up to be a barnburner.

The big picture: With no presidential or U.S. Senate race this year, the governor's election is the marquee contest on Minnesota midterm ballots.

  • But down-ballot races are attracting outsized attention and cash as Republicans seek to ride a red wave to statewide office for the first time since 2006.

Zoom in: Political insiders see auditor as one of the GOP's best pick-up opportunities, along with the hotly contested attorney general's race.

Why it matters: The auditor serves as a check on local government finances and spending, conducting audits and producing reports on entities such as counties, cities, school districts and even municipal liquor stores.

  • The office also provides local governments with trainings and investigates allegations of theft or misuse of public funds spent at the local level.

Plus: The post can be a springboard for higher political office. (See: former Govs. Arne Carlson and Mark Dayton.)

Driving the close race: The political climate heading into the midterms may give down-ballot GOP candidates a boost, especially given the increasingly nationalized and polarized state of elections, according to David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

  • Not knowing much about an office or candidate makes straight-ticket voting even more appealing, he noted.

Between the lines: Headlines about Feeding Our Future and other high-profile issues with government spending have brought more attention to the auditor's contest, even though issues involving state agencies largely fall outside the auditor's limited authority.

What they're saying: "[Auditor] has nothing to do with with overseeing or looking at how funds are spent by the state," Schultz said. "But you hear state auditor and that's exactly what you think, for most people."

Bios, in brief: Blaha, a former teacher and union official, was first elected to her position in 2018. Wilson is an attorney who started an auditing firm that focused on auditing medical trials.

The key issues: The rivals disagree on the fundamentals of what the auditor should do.

  • Wilson says he wants to be a more aggressive "watchdog" for fraud by beefing up the investigations division and and using the office to publicly call attention to potential issues, even those that fall outside the office's jurisdiction.
  • Blaha accuses Wilson of "chasing headlines" and misleading voters about what the auditor can actually do. She says an effective auditor should prevent problems before they happen — without fanfare.

Plus: The candidates have sparred over what if any role the state auditor could have played in catching, or stopping, the alleged fraud involving Feeding Our Future.

  • Wilson says Blaha should have done more to raise alarm, including after her office produced a report on federally assisted programs in February 2021 that noted Feeding Our Future had not submitted an audit report the year before.

Reality check: Oversight of the Minnesota Department of Education, which distributed the federal food aid funds at the center of the scandal, falls to the Office of the Legislative Auditor, a separate, unelected position.

  • By the time the report in question was released, MDE was already locked in a legal battle with the nonprofit related to the suspected fraud concerns.
  • Blaha has said the report "did exactly what it was supposed to do" and the information was used by MDE in its efforts to sever ties with the group.

The rivals also have different approaches to managing state and local investment funds, as MinnPost reported.

Zoom out: Competitive races for attorney general and secretary of state have also been dominated by broader, national political themes (crime and the 2020 election results, respectively).

What to watch: Ads targeting those other two down-ballot races are already flooding the airwaves thanks to spending by deep-pocketed outside groups.

  • Wilson, who has spent more than $180,000 of his own money on the campaign as of Sept. 20, plans to go on air with TV ads soon.

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