The Magazine

Gopher Begins with GOP

Should Minnesota go Republican?

Jan 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 17 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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St. Paul

MINNESOTA, the celebrated liberal state of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and so many other nationally prominent Democrats, has finally turned toward the political center and right. The once-dominant Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party is in disarray. New GOP officeholders Governor Tim Pawlenty and Senator Norm Coleman seem very much in command (and popular). President George W. Bush, who lost here by only 59,000 votes in 2000, may carry the state next year--which would be the first time a Republican has managed to do so since Nixon in 1972.

True, Republicans have had hopes of transformation before, only to be turned back. In 1978, the GOP swept both Senate seats and the governorship. But DFLer Rudy Perpich won back the governorship in 1982 and held it until 1991. Populist DFLer Paul Wellstone won back a Senate seat in 1990. In 1998, optimistic Republicans were blindsided by Jesse Ventura's idiosyncratic upset in the governor's race. Then two years later, liberal Mark Dayton defeated a very conservative Republican incumbent senator, Rod Grams.

By 2002, however, the DFL had become entangled in internal squabbling, pitting its most liberal wing against traditional liberals, and excluding moderates and centrists. Governor Ventura, it turned out, had no reelection stamina, and his Independence party nominated Tim Penny, the moderate former DFL congressman. Penny led in initial polls, but, lacking Ventura's star appeal, came in third behind GOP state representative Pawlenty and DFL state senator Roger Moe. At the same time, the tragic death of incumbent senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash set up the showdown in which Democrat-turned-Republican St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman defeated DFL elder statesman Mondale, who was put on the ballot at the last minute by his shocked and mourning party. The GOP also won a redistricted congressional seat held by a DFLer.

No one can know if Wellstone would have won and slowed the DFL's decline. Wellstone had a superb political organization, but it was energized primarily by his passion and sincerity. The dominant DFLer now, and the party's only statewide office holder, is Attorney General Mike Hatch, who will almost certainly be the nominee against Pawlenty in 2006. Hatch's political base, however, is not in the DFL cities but in rural and suburban areas, where the GOP has been surging in recent years.

The DFL has many problems. The Green party has begun to run candidates in state and local elections, and can take 3 percent or more of the vote from the DFL. Feuding party activists, most of whom are old-time liberals, have left the party exhausted from factional fights. Moderate and centrist Democrats no longer automatically vote DFL, as evidenced by Tim Penny's 17 percent share of the gubernatorial vote in 2002.

Meanwhile Pawlenty, who inherited a huge deficit and a state senate still controlled by the DFL, navigated a successful session of the legislature. Indeed, at a time when governors nationwide--Republican and Democratic alike--are raising taxes to deal with deficits, Pawlenty was one of the few who did not raise taxes. His strategy was to make budget cuts evenly across the board (exempting secondary school education), and to raise numerous fees. With a large majority in the house and a savvy demonstration of his political skills, he got the necessary votes in the state senate.

Pawlenty's deftness only seemed to send the DFL further to the left. The majority leader of the senate, the top DFL legislator in the state, has now endorsed Dennis Kucinich for president, and the party's fringes are dominating internal debates. This is because, in recent years, fewer than one-half of one percent of DFL voters have participated in the complicated and ludicrously undemocratic precinct caucus system by which the party chooses its leaders and determines most party policies.

The GOP, it must be pointed out, fell victim to similar factionalism two decades ago, but the conservative and moderate wings of the state GOP reached a tacit understanding in the late 1990s, enabling strong candidates of both wings to rise and run under the party's banner. Governor Pawlenty's first legislative session featured victories for him on abortion, guns, and taxes--all of which satisfied conservatives--but he is turning now to advocating prescription drug imports from Canada for seniors and other issues with which he hopes to expand his base.

Coleman also had strong conservative credentials when he was elected, and in his very high-profile first year as a senator he has made himself a popular incumbent through frequent tours of the state and superior constituent services. Unlike Pawlenty, who may have stumbled in proposing to reinstate the death penalty in a state that abolished it almost 90 years ago, Coleman appears to be avoiding unpopular issues.

All of this bodes well for President Bush. The Dean organization, as elsewhere, has been visible and highly energized in the state, but Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, and Lieberman supporters here seem more than routinely skeptical of their party's likely nominee. This has intensified since the capture of Saddam Hussein. The Bush reelection organization, for its part, is busy replicating the very capable Coleman 2002 grassroots effort, and is likely to maximize the already strong support for the president in rural and suburban Minnesota. The latest published polls indicate the president has expanded his support level from about 50 percent to almost 60 percent.

The main impediment to Republican control of the state is increasingly the Independence party, now rid of Jesse Ventura and trying to occupy the political center. Unless that party recruits a compelling leader/candidate, however, we may soon see 2002-2004 as the beginning of a Republican era in what used to be one of the country's most reliably liberal states.

Barry Casselman, the national political correspondent of the Preludium News Service, writes a column for the Washington Times.