WASHINGTON, D.C., - For much of the past two years, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has loudly criticized the fundraising culture on Capitol Hill, which is far different now than when he first served in Congress in the 70s.
Last month, Nolan stood behind a battered podium in front of the U.S. Capitol and introduced a seven-point plan to fix Congress. Step one, he said, is passing legislation that would effectively reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United ruling of four years ago. It allows unlimited and often undisclosed contributions to campaigns in federal elections.
"Money has become a terribly corruptive influence in our politics," said Nolan, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 8th District.
But first, Nolan must accomplish his second step: winning a tough a re-election challenge from Republican businessman Stewart Mills, who has dipped into his personal wealth to fund his campaign.
If money is any indication, Nolan may have the campaign weapons to defend his seat against Mills. According to new campaign finance numbers Nolan raised $641,000 in the last three months -- more than double any other quarter since he returned to Congress last year.
Mills has raised $1.7 million so far in his bid to unseat Nolan, including more than $563,000 in the three months ending September 30. His campaign has more than $250,000 on hand going into the final stretch before Election Day.
Nolan often complains that there is too much money in politics. But the pace of his fundraising shows some of the contradictions Democrats are living by these days.
Fellow Democrats had been quietly muttering that Nolan needed to raise money for his campaign if he wanted to stick around longer.
Nolan's latest fundraising numbers suggest he's gotten the message.
Lots of money is pouring into the 8th District race which is estimated to be the fifth most expensive House race in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In part, that is made possible by the Citizens United decision Nolan is so critical of. It opened the way for mega donations, a greater role for corporations in elections and super PACs that can raise unlimited amounts of money if they do not don't directly coordinate their activities with a candidate.
Somewhat ironically given Nolan's position on Citizens United, a major Democratic super PAC has become one of the biggest spenders in Nolan's race. The House Majority PAC, which so far has raised more than $12 million, has spent at least $700,000 in the 8th District on negative television ads.
"Stewart Mills inherited his millions and now he wants another tax break for the wealthy," an announcer says in one ad.
Mills does not have a super PAC acting on his behalf but benefitted from $800K in spending from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does not have to disclose its donors -- and from a large ad campaign from the Nation Rifle Association.
When asked last month about the contradiction between his goal of getting money out of politics and the work of the House Majority PAC on his behalf, Nolan he doesn't like the way the fundraising game is played.
"It's time we change the rules," he said. "But in the meantime, I've got to play the game by the rules that we have established."
Nolan's position represents the new orthodoxy about money in politics for Democrats, said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor of law and political science.
Democrats, he said, "condemn money in politics and at the same time say that it is a necessary evil to combat Republican money."
Mills campaign spokeswoman Chloe Rockow sees hypocrisy instead.
"It's always very interesting to us when we look at the stories to see Rick campaigning in D.C. to limit money in politics and he doesn't like fundraising and he doesn't want to dial for dollars," she said. "But when he comes back home, he'll take all he can get."
Rockow said Mills welcomes the contributions and support of anyone who agrees with his message.
According to Nolan's campaign, more than 90 percent of Nolan's most recent fundraising came from small donors giving $200 or less.
The House Majority PAC's donors are a different league though.
Nearly two thirds of that organization's funding came from six individuals, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics (WEB: http://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/contrib.php?cycle=2014&cmte=C...).
Schultz said Democrats like Nolan have built up big online fundraising networks of small donors to show that they’re fighting the influence of big money in politics.
"But there's no question that the Democrats are clearly relying on the kindness of their millionaire strangers, too," said Schultz.
With Republicans firmly opposed to stricter campaign finance regulations and in a good position to win control of the House and possibly the Senate next year, there's no chance Congress will act to undo the Citizens United decision anytime soon.
Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Brainerd at 88.3 FM or at MPRnews.org.