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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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.