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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. 

Some DFL operatives are grumbling privately that Dayton’s political mantra leading up to the primary—to “tax rich Minnesotans” as his solution to balance the state budget—is not likely to be appealing in November. Dayton, who has the endorsement of most labor unions in the state, has also proposed that, while most Minnesotans will have to make financial sacrifices, this should not apply to state employees, whose pension fund is in serious trouble. 

Some Republicans are concerned that their nominee has let himself become too identified with conservative social issues. Emmer is popular with Tea Party activists in the state, who are primarily interested in economic issues, but who are also easy targets of the liberal DFL in the competition for independent voters. Nonetheless, a portion of those backing the Tea Party this year do not normally vote, and this could be a hidden asset for the Emmer campaign, which now is stressing the jobs issues facing the state. 

It is the Independence party candidate Tom Horner, however, who has gotten in the way of DFL vote-seeking in the large pool of unaffiliated voters in the state (as much as 40 percent in recent polls). He attracts social moderates who are upset about economic issues, and DFLers who are unhappy with having Dayton as the party nominee. Horner has proposed raising state sales taxes while at the same time lowering business taxes. From endorsements so far, it is clear that Horner is doing well with many in the business and professional community. 

A record amount of money was spent in the DFL primary, with department store heir Dayton spending several million dollars and Entenza spending much more than that from his personal wealth. Dayton has turned down state campaign funding, but says he no longer has unlimited funds and is aggressively raising money. His action has been a boon to both Emmer and Horner, who have accepted state funds but are now relieved of some of the spending limits that go with these funds. It is expected, nevertheless, that Dayton will have the resources he needs for the November campaign. 

While it is technically the DFL’s “turn” to elect a governor this year, this has clearly become a GOP year. Republicans are expected to make significant gains in both houses of the state legislature, perhaps narrowly winning back control of at least one of them. Governor Pawlenty has consistently turned back DFL efforts to raise taxes in the state and initiated efforts to cut state spending drastically. While his personal popularity is mixed, the retiring governor has strengthened the significant constituency opposed to traditional DFL economic solutions outside the inner cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This constituency includes not only Republicans, but many independents and some more conservative DFLers as well. 

The result of this political mishmash is that the 2010 governor’s race in Minnesota is too unclear to call. Some polls indicate, however, that the Dayton campaign is having difficulty connecting with voters outside his party base, and his frontrunner status may not last long. Emmer has a huge challenge to overcome his early gaffes and to attract independent voters, but if third party candidate Horner can capture enough DFL and more liberal independent voters, Emmer could be the beneficiary of the same phenomenon that has denied the DFL the governorship for the past three cycles. If Horner can emerge with more personal charisma than he has shown so far, and can adroitly maneuver between the very liberal Dayton and the very conservative Emmer, there is even an outside chance he can pull a Ventura-like upset, unlikely as that seems. 

If Emmer somehow wins, which seems more likely now, and the GOP wins enough state legislative races, there could be a move to make Yogi Berra the state philosopher and change the state motto to “Déjà Vu All Over Again  .  .  . and Again.” This curious race is definitely worth watching.

Barry Casselman, a national political analyst, writes ‘The Prairie Editor’ blog at barrycasselman.com.

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