The Magazine

As Minnesota Goes . . .

High political stakes in northern states.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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Minneapolis

MINNESOTA IS AT THE CENTER of a political superstate I call "Minnewisowa"(Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), which could be a vital battleground for the presidential elections of 2008, as it was in 2004. Minnewisowa has 27 electoral votes (more than Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, or Michigan), and its component states not only vote similarly, but, since 2000, are also among the most competitive "swing" states in the nation.

In this year's midterm elections, all three states have competitive contests for governor. The GOP could pick up the executive posts in Wisconsin and Iowa, with two sitting congressmen as candidates--Mark Green (if he wins the Wisconsin GOP nomination) and Jim Nussle in Iowa. That's the good news for Republicans. The bad news is that both these House seats, now vacated, could be won by Democrats.

The incumbent Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, is favored to win reelection in a three-way contest that will feature a candidate from the state's Independence party (which previously fielded Jesse Ventura). While it remains to be seen if this candidate can win anything like the 37 percent Ventura achieved, his presence will make it difficult for any Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidate to win.

The major battle in Minnesota and the region will be for the Senate seat being vacated by incumbent Democrat Mark Dayton. Congressman Mark Kennedy successfully warded off an intraparty fight for the GOP nomination, and this seat is probably the best opportunity for a GOP pick-up in 2006.

Hennepin County (Minneapolis) Attorney Amy Klobuchar had originally planned to run as the DFL candidate for state attorney general, but when Dayton unexpectedly decided to retire after one term, she entered the Senate race. Patty Wetterling, who became well-known in the state for her efforts on behalf of children following the kidnapping of her son, and who ran a strong race for Congress against Kennedy in 2004, was Klobuchar's main opponent until she abruptly withdrew to run again for the 6th District congressional seat. Ford Bell, a liberal philanthropist with his own financial resources, but politically unknown, also entered. Almost by default, Klobuchar thus became the almost-certain DFL nominee, and a costly primary was avoided. Bell remains in the race, but polls show him far behind Klobuchar.

Klobuchar does have problems. Although she has raised substantial funds, she is not well-known outside the state's largest city. With crime rising rapidly in Minneapolis, the GOP is trying to make her record as county attorney an issue. Recent high profile crimes in the city's upscale neighborhoods could put her on the defensive. A moderate liberal, Klobuchar is being pulled to the left by her party base (as is happening throughout the country this year).

Kennedy is an authentic conservative who has represented one of the state's most conservative districts. But to succeed in statewide Minnesota politics, a candidate has to appeal to the state's large political center. Freshman Senator Norm Coleman has apparently done this, helped by a charismatic political personality. The late Senator Paul Wellstone was much more liberal than most voters in the state, but his personal qualities enabled him to be reelected. Former Senator Rod Grams, who served during some of the same time as Wellstone, was as conservative as Wellstone was liberal, but he made few gestures to the political center and was defeated after only one term.

Kennedy's campaign is not made easier by the inevitable comparisons with Coleman and Pawlenty, both GOP stars who have obvious rapport with Republican voters. On the other hand, Kennedy was a successful businessman who upset a popular DFL incumbent in 2000 and is known for relentless hard work on the campaign trail.

President Bush, as elsewhere, is unpopular now in Minnesota (he almost won the state in 2000 and 2004). Kennedy has been a constant supporter of the administration, and the DFL is making a strong effort to tie him to the president. In the past, most successful GOP senators in this state have managed to establish a maverick image that appears somewhat independent of Republican administrations. Coleman has done this so far by voting against oil drilling in Alaska. Kennedy has yet to find the issues to demonstrate his independence.

Although no major DFLer or Republican is expected to enter the race at this late date, there is always the possibility that a serious Independence party candidate (Tim Penny?) could enter and throw the race into a three-way turmoil.

Both the national Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees have placed a very high priority on this race and are certain to funnel in substantial funds here to help their nominees. Major liberal and conservative interest groups will do the same. It will almost certainly be one of the most-watched contests in the 2006 elections.

A lot is at stake here. A Kennedy win would likely mean that a Democratic tide had not developed and that the GOP would keep its majority in the Senate. A Klobuchar win, combined with Democratic wins in other close races across the country, would mean that the GOP majority is highly vulnerable. Either way, it will be a leading indicator of which way the wind is blowing in "Minnewisowa," with immense implications for 2008.

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