The Magazine

A Less Liberal Minnesota?

On his feet again after the Ventura takedown, Norm Coleman eyes the Senate.

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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ST. PAUL
Five years ago, the Democratic mayor of St. Paul switched parties. The move was scripted to be a disaster for the party Norm Coleman was leaving. He had worked under two popular Democratic attorneys general, then was elected mayor of the state capital. Clearly a political talent, Coleman not only had begun to reverse St. Paul's economic decline, he had ambitions to be governor. But he had a problem. A pro-business, moderate DFLer, as Democrats are known in Minnesota (for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party), Coleman was pro-life. The DFL establishment had become overwhelmingly pro-choice, and it was made clear to Coleman that his political ambitions would have to stop at the city line.

Amid considerable hoopla, Coleman embraced his new party, and won reelection in 1997. With no obvious Republican in line to succeed the popular Republican governor, the moderate (and pro-choice) Arne Carlson, Coleman emerged as the party's candidate for governor in 1998. As it turned out, his DFL opponent was Hubert (Skip) Humphrey III, state attorney general and the man under whom Coleman had served as solicitor general before running for mayor. A huge battle loomed. Coleman, coached by party leaders, presented himself as an economic and social conservative, in contrast to the traditional liberal Humphrey, son of the legendary Minnesota senator and former vice president. Then the unexpected happened.

A local talk show host, once mayor of a Minneapolis suburb and before that a professional wrestler, decided to run for governor on the ticket of the marginal Independence party. Jesse Ventura was treated as a joke by the two major parties and the media. With Coleman and Humphrey locked in a tight race through the summer and autumn, Ventura remained under 10 percent in the polls until September.

Then three critical developments precipitated Ventura's sudden rise. First, it was decided to include him in the public debates that have become a hallmark of Minnesota statewide elections. One reason for the decision was that the Independence party candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1996 had received more than 5 percent of the vote, the threshold for entitlement to campaign funds from a state income-tax check-off. Second, as a consequence of the Independence party's entitlement, the Ventura campaign received a sudden infusion of cash, more than $300,000, in the final weeks of the race.

Finally, both Humphrey and Coleman were advised to stick to their campaign scripts, repeating over and over the mantras their respective consultants and aides had determined would sway voters. In the debates, Humphrey and Coleman sounded programmed and wooden, in contrast to the populist Ventura, whose performance was colorful, ungrammatical, and plain-spoken. What's more, Ventura was something new--a centrist populist. On Election Day, Ventura beat Coleman by only 50,000 votes (out of more than 2.4 million cast), with Humphrey coming in a humiliating third.

Coleman threw himself back into his job as mayor of St. Paul, and over the next three years accomplished his most dramatic successes. These included the construction of an arena to house a restored St. Paul NHL franchise, considerable downtown construction, several new corporate headquarters, museums, restaurants, and the attendant new jobs, all without any tax increases during his eight years as mayor.

After he left office in January 2002, Coleman announced he would run again for governor. But he had distanced himself from many in the GOP who had supported his candidacy in 1998, and the Republican establishment had already coalesced behind a political neophyte with conservative views, a successful business background, and millions of his own money to spend on the campaign. Many urged Coleman to run instead for the U.S. Senate seat held by DFLer Paul Wellstone, who had broken a pledge to limit himself to two terms. Then in the spring, President Bush called Coleman to ask him to run for the Senate seat. Facing a flight of financial support from his race for governor, and universal GOP support if he heeded President Bush's request, Coleman did an about-face and announced he would run against Wellstone.

Since then, much has gone well for Coleman. He has toured the country to raise funds, often teaming up with two other GOP Senate challengers from nearby states--John Thune of South Dakota and Jim Talent of Missouri, both of whom also have excellent chances of defeating incumbent Democrats this year. (In fact, if the party is to retake control of the Senate, each of these "Three Republican Musketeers" must probably win in November.) President Bush came to Minnesota recently and raised about $2 million for Coleman in a single night.

After September 11, Senator Wellstone's well-known liberal message no longer resonated with many voters, who have clearly moved to the center since the heralded days of liberals Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy. Further, Wellstone's breaking his pledge not to run again detracted from his image as a maverick politician. Stressing education and jobs, Coleman moved toward the center. He reinforced the move by opposing oil drilling in Alaska (which President Bush favored) and endorsing a raise in the minimum wage. The Wellstone strategy of portraying Coleman as a right-winger has so far been frustrated. As elsewhere in the country, Bush has high approval ratings in Minnesota, and his personal support for Coleman is seen as an asset for the state. Wellstone, even under President Clinton, seemed unable to deliver for Minnesota. Coleman's campaign theme has become, "I will get the job done."

Wellstone's poll numbers are remarkably low for a two-term incumbent: His own pollster places him in the low 40s. Complicating the race further is the emergence of a fourth political party in the state, the ultra-liberal Green party, whose Senate candidate will appear on the November ballot. Wellstone is still popular with many ultra-liberal voters, but if even a few percent defect to the Green candidate, they could fatally hurt the senator in a close race. (The Independence party is also likely to have a candidate in the race, but it is unclear who this would hurt more, Coleman or Wellstone.)

A curious sidelight to this race is the fact that since 1978 the seat has been held by someone who is Jewish. In fact, since 1990 the candidates of both major parties have been Jewish, as they are this year. The Jewish population of Minnesota is less than 1percent.

In spite of his current problems, Wellstone remains formidable. He has the best grass-roots organization in the state, and his emotional oratory, especially his class-warfare rhetoric, still resonates with many Democrats in this affluent state. He continues to raise substantial campaign funds, especially from national contributors including well-known liberals in Hollywood. But Coleman is a natural politician and a quick study. Often likened to the legendary Hubert Humphrey, he is a charismatic campaigner and public speaker.

His campaign, of course, is not without potential problems. His poll numbers in rural Minnesota, usually a GOP stronghold, are weak, and Wellstone is attempting to capitalize on the farm bill recently signed by President Bush. Polls also indicate that Coleman lacks support among women voters. Although there is no formal opposition to Coleman's candidacy in his adopted party, some very conservative Republicans are skeptical of the former St. Paul mayor who moved to Minnesota from Brooklyn. They will not be ecstatic as Coleman stresses centrist themes during the summer and autumn.

Beyond its importance for Minnesota, the Coleman-Wellstone race is a barometer of several political trends. For one thing, the outcome will be a measure of President Bush's impact on the 2002 elections, given the president's very visible intervention on Coleman's behalf. In early 2001, Wellstone spokespersons predicted the president's unpopularity would drag Coleman to defeat. For another, Coleman is testing the Rove/Bush "compassionate conservative" strategy for the president and the national party with his campaign of economic conservatism and social pragmatism. Like the president, Coleman remains solidly pro-life, but, sensitive to GOP pro-choice voters, he has stressed other issues in the campaign. In 2000, Rod Grams, then Minnesota's Republican senator, made himself an easy target for Democrats by proclaiming positions considerably to the right of most state voters. Grams was roundly defeated. Coleman is showing the kind of flexibility on several issues likely to appeal to "soccer moms" and moderates of both parties.

As Michael Barone has pointed out, Republicans have been gaining sharply in suburbs since September 11. Early polls indicate that Coleman's message is well received in such suburbs, and if he can continue to appeal to the state's independent voters, coax moderate DFLers to support him, and keep his conservative base--no small acrobatic feat--he will win.

In these uncertain times, of course, no prediction is reliable, especially this distance from Election Day. The DFL seems on the defensive, as Democrats are nationally. But the war against terrorism and the fragile economic recovery compel a new vigilance unknown to virtually any American now alive.

And as we have learned, even with millions voting, an election can turn on a single ballot. Overnight, one senator can shift control of a whole branch of government. A handful of persons can wreak terror and death on a community, the nation, and the world. With all these uncertainties, with two additional political parties, and with Jesse Ventura as governor, Minnesota voters seem braced for the unpredictable.

Barry Casselman is a national political correspondent for the Preludium New Service.