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Not Their Year

Given the national mood, Minnesota’s DFL may lose the governorship again.

Oct 4, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 03 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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St. Paul

Not Their Year

Photo Credit: AP

The final shape of the 2010 Minnesota governor’s race is now becoming visible. Once again, this northern midwestern state is offering voters an idiosyncratic choice. For the fourth consecutive cycle, it will be a three-person race. The third major party, the Independence party, has played a decisive role in the past three, winning once and throwing the contest to the Republican candidate the other two times. This pattern could well be repeated in 2010. 

Out of the governor’s residence since 1991, the Democrats (here called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party or DFL) are convinced that it is their turn to administer state government. As the 2010 campaign season approached, it seemed they would succeed, but a number of events have intervened, some national and some local. Barack Obama won Minnesota by 10 points in 2008, enabling the DFL to capture a controversial U.S. Senate seat held by a Republican and to strengthen their hold on both houses of the state legislature. The party was thus poised at last to win the governor’s office with its power to appoint judges and state administrators. 

But Barack Obama’s popularity has dropped 20 points in less than two years, and the national tide against the Democratic party is as strong here as anywhere in the economically distressed Midwest. Although the DFL endorsed a credible Margaret Kelliher, speaker of the state house, to be their nominee, she was challenged in the primary by two men who had enormous personal resources, former U.S. senator Mark Dayton and former state legislator Matt Entenza. Entenza spent a huge sum but had neither the name recognition nor the distinctive populist campaign issues of Dayton, who narrowly won the primary. There is widespread agreement that if Kelliher had won the primary, she would be the clear favorite in November (in a state that has not had a woman governor). 

Dayton enters the autumn campaign with much baggage, including a troubled medical history and his record as senator (which by his own evaluation deserved an “F”), but he remains popular with seniors (from his actions when a senator) and has much more political experience than either of his rivals. 

The Republican contest for the gubernatorial nomination was spirited, but included candidates mostly unknown statewide. The winner was colorful rural legislator Tom Emmer, who is prone to political gaffes and has no experience in running statewide. After several blunders over minor issues, but which produced major headlines, Emmer’s campaign staff was reorganized, and the candidate seems to have acquired a second wind. Emmer is a strong pro-life, pro-gun social conservative who is stressing the economic issues. 

The Independence party of Minnesota (IP) arose in the mid-1990s out of the Perot movement, but seemed on its way to becoming a fringe party until it nominated former wrestler Jesse Ventura for governor in 1998. Ventura pulled off an incredible upset in that race, defeating state attorney general Hubert “Skip” Humphrey and St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (later a senator). After one term, Ventura retired, but his IP successor was former DFL congressman Tim Penny, who took an early lead in the 2002 race against the DFL state senate majority leader and a young GOP state house leader named Tim Pawlenty. At the end of that campaign, Penny’s vote percentage declined, but it was large enough to give the race, by a plurality, to Pawlenty. Four years later, the IP again came up with a credible gubernatorial candidate. Though he was able to win only 6 percent of the vote, that was enough to give Pawlenty his second plurality win. (Governor Pawlenty, by adroitly acting to outwit the liberal DFL legislature and refusing to raise taxes, has made himself a national figure and is expected to run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. He decided to retire as governor this year.) 

This year the IP has nominated Tom Horner, previously a GOP campaign consultant and a moderate. Horner knows state issues and has made a strong early impression. 

An early September poll showed Dayton and Emmer tied in the low 30s and Horner at 12 percent. A later September poll has Dayton and Emmer in the mid-30s and Horner at 18 percent. Sources in the Horner campaign now claim their candidate is in the low 20s. It had been expected that Dayton would take an initial lead, especially after Emmer’s blunders, and he still remains the favorite, but if these polls are accurate, they’re bad news for the DFL and its former senator. 

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