With Minnesota Governor's Race, Democrats Hope to Break long Losing Streak
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
The last time a Democratic presidential candidate lost Minnesota was during the 1972 Nixon landslide. Yet despite this uninterrupted tide of blue on electoral-college maps, it's been 24 years since a Democrat has won Minnesota's governorship.
Now, though, the party has a golden opportunity. Two-term Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty is leaving office to mount an expected presidential bid, leaving the governorship up for grabs this fall. However, with Democrats nationally facing their worst political environment since 1994, the party is hardly guaranteed to end its Minnesota statehouse drought this year.
In fact, Minnesotans are looking at the most unusual and wide-open gubernatorial race since a feather-boa-sporting former wrestler shocked the political world and won the governor's mansion a dozen years ago. Polls show a competitive contest both in the Democratic primary and in the general election, which will feature a credible third-party candidate.
The presumptive Republican nominee is state Representative Tom Emmer, a favorite of Tea Party supporters. Emmer is charismatic and has a knack for connecting with voters at rallies, but political observers in the state say he's easily the most conservative candidate for statewide office in decades — maybe too conservative even for some Minnesota Republicans.
Most of Minnesota's nine Republican governors since 1938 have been moderate, even progressive. Some advocated higher social services spending, strong civil rights laws, and a focus on environmental protection and urban planning. Pawlenty was the first to emphasize tax-cutting, limited government and social conservatism. Emmer, who has Sarah Palin's backing, does so, too, but with more gusto.
Recently, Emmer's campaign got sidetracked when he urged lowering the state minimum wage for tipped employees. While many other states already do what Emmer suggested, he also claimed — to widespread disbelief — that a restaurant owner had told him that three of his servers were making $100,000 a year. Critics said it was an insensitive message during a depressed economy, and Emmer's campaign was forced to undertake a major damage-control effort.
Emmer "has no background appealing to a statewide electorate," says Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist. "As a state representative, you can get away with that, but as a gubernatorial candidate, everybody pays attention to what you say."
Dayton has been elected statewide as auditor as well as Senator, and he's well-known and deep-pocketed as an heir to the Dayton-Hudson retailing family. But Dayton's sole term in the Senate was panned, even earning him a spot on Time magazine's 2006 list of worst senators.
Entenza, like Dayton, has invested deeply in the race using personal funds and is widely seen as a good debater. Entenza also could be well-positioned for a centrist run against Emmer in the general election, having tapped a leadership team that includes Republicans as well as veterans of the third-party governorship of Jesse Ventura.
None of the three Democrats matches Emmer in charisma, says Blois Olson, a public relations consultant in the Twin Cities who previously advised Democrats. Emmer easily wins "the I-want-to-have-a-beer-with-them competition," Olson says.
Then there's the Independence Party, which controls the ballot line that vaulted Ventura into the governorship with just under 37 percent of the vote.
In some ways, 2010 ought to be a fruitful environment for the Independence Party. Voters nationally are down on incumbents of both major parties, and the Democrats and the Republicans in Minnesota may end up nominating candidates to left and right, respectively, of the electorate at large. Independent candidates for governor are expected to make notable showings this year in Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and possibly other states.
The Minnesota Independence Party is poised to nominate a serious candidate in Tom Horner — someone who can appeal to disaffected Republican moderates (he's a onetime top aide to former Republican U.S. Senator David Durenberger), as well as to Democrats (by virtue of his somewhat left-of-center agenda).
Political experts say the Independence Party has a solid core of about 8 percent of the state electorate, and in a favorable climate, the party can draw much higher numbers. But it's unclear whether Horner, who lacks both the flair of a Ventura and the infrastructure of a major party, can generate enough media attention and grassroots fire to approach the kind of plurality that's actually needed to win the election.
"I think his biggest challenge is raising $1 million between now and September 1, because unlike Ventura, he's not going to get free media attention," says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul. "He has to convince moderate, pro-business Republicans that he's a viable candidate."
If the political angles of the 2010 Minnesota governor's race are complicated, the policy landscape is not. It's all about the state's budget gap of roughly $6 billion.
"Whoever wins the governorship will be in a world of hurt from day one," says Mike Franklin, the director of elections policy at the state Chamber of Commerce. "This is a state that's very sick financially."
To close the budget hole, Emmer is focusing on spending cuts, while Dayton is focusing on tax hikes for the wealthy (although his rivals have questioned whether all Minnesotans who would be hit with tax hikes actually are wealthy). The other contenders are advocating a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.
So far, the state budget situation has dominated the candidates' rhetoric. But as the campaign season moves forward, it's unclear whether the state or the national environments will become dominant.
After eight years in control of the governorship, the Republicans are effectively the incumbent party in Minnesota, carrying a share of the burden for the state's hard times. But on the national level, there's a strong pro-Republican trend thanks to the Democrats' control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress in Washington.
"If national trends prevail, it's Emmer's to win," Schier says. "But if state issues prevail, I think the race favors the DFL."
Emmer seems to be counting on a nationalized election. "He tries to refer to Washington as much as he can," Franklin says. "That's probably what I would tell him to do if I were advising him."
Democrats in recent election cycles have repeatedly seen their gubernatorial candidates lead in the polls yet ultimately lose the contest. Ventura surged from far back in 1998; the raucous funeral for U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone torpedoed the Democrats' chances of winning an open-seat governorship in 2002; and 2006 Democratic nominee Mike Hatch melted down in the final weeks of the campaign, allowing Pawlenty to win a second term with a plurality of the vote.
Ultimately, Schultz says, "politics is about having a good narrative. Emmer has that — that government is broken, that we need less taxing and more personal freedoms."
By contrast, he says, "the Democrats are still trying to find their narrative."