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Will Norm Coleman run for governor?

Your humble ink-stained wretch can’t provide a yes or no answer to the headline question. But I’ve been talking to some of my best sources, especially in Republican circles.

Norm Coleman at his concession press conference Tuesday: "As to my future plans, that’s a subject for another day."
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Norm Coleman at his concession press conference Tuesday: “As to my future plans, that’s a subject for another day.”

Your humble ink-stained wretch can’t provide a yes or no answer to the headline question. The answer may be unknowable at present, meaning Norm Coleman may have honestly not decided, at least not finally. The current conventional wisdom is that Coleman will run. And there certainly are good facts and arguments to support the proposition that Coleman will make a strong candidate if he does run and that his life story so far suggests that he will.

But I’ve been talking to some of my best sources, especially in Republican circles. They see and hear things the rest of us don’t. And, based on what they tell me, I am increasingly convinced that when the answer is knowable (and some of them think it already is), the answer will be: No.

Of those Repub insiders who claimed to have a strong, clear impression, the impressions ranged only from, “No, he will not run, and he told me as much” to, “He doesn’t seem to be thinking about it that seriously” to, “He is extremely, maybe 94 percent unlikely to run” for governor in 2010, but of course that leaves open the 6 percent possibility that Coleman will still decide to do so.

Safe position

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The safe position is that Coleman hasn’t ruled anything in or out, that, now that the Senate race is finally behind him, he will follow a serious, rational and potentially lengthy process of considering the race. In his gracious concession press conference Tuesday, when he said, “As to my future plans, that’s a subject for another day,” it was the perfect tease for the next phase, closing no doors. 

Republican analyst Tom Horner (of the Himle Horner public affairs/PR firm) was willing to go on the record (in an email) with what he is seeing and hearing:

“Norm Coleman is actively exploring the reception his candidacy would receive from the Republican faithful. So far, I believe he is hearing more positive than negative, in part based on the lack of excitement over other candidates.

“My guess, though, is that he will stay low profile, perhaps announcing that he will be talking/listening to Minnesotans how he can best serve the state, etc. He brings a lot of political assets, not least of which is a capacity to raise funds — a quality that becomes hugely more important with the de facto death of publicly financed gubernatorial campaigns and the potential for Republicans to be facing a candidate like [Matt] Entenza or [Mark] Dayton.

“Coleman has demonstrated a remarkable resiliency — who else has bounced back from as much as he has throughout his political career? Ultimately, though, it’s a tough road ahead for him. The most conservative members of the party (otherwise known as ‘convention delegates’) never have been completely convinced of his position on social issues and they still are mad at last fall’s bail-out vote.

“If there is a credible alternative at the convention, delegates will go there. And a primary will be tough, especially when Dems likely will have their own primary to tend to (which in 2010, probably will be the primary that independents focus on).”

Among those who have long believed that Coleman would go for guv is Minnesota’s political superguru Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. Look at Coleman’s adult life to date, says Jacobs, and he comes across as the classic professional politician. He’s run for office pretty much every cycle that he could have done since he first ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of St. Paul in 1989.

While there are a dozen or more Republicans thinking about the race for guv, Jacobs says that Coleman is the only one that combines:

  • Statewide name recognition;
  • A proven ability to fund-raise well into the millions of dollars, and to tap into an already existing statewide and national donor base;
  • Strength as a candidate for Repub endorsement (he’s been endorsed for statewide office three times — no other candidate can come close to that record; the other biggest-name possible Repub candidate, former Congressman Jim Ramstad, is presumed to be a non-starter for endorsement because of his positions on key social issues);
  • Strength as a potential candidate in a primary if it came to that;
  • Significant experience at putting together statewide campaigns, and, although he is only one for three in statewide races, he has been competitive every time.

It’s an impressive list. One exploratory-mode guv candidate told me that many of the lesser-known exploratory mode-ers would probably stop exploring if Coleman got in because he would suck up so much of the air and money and make the chance of success for a lesser-knowner seem remote.

GOP donors

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That possible candidate told me something that might suggest a Coleman run. He has approached certain known Republican contributors to line up a base of support and some of them have told him that they didn’t want to commit to anyone in the field until they saw whether Coleman was getting in. This interested me, because if Coleman was actually asking his donors to hold onto their commitments while he mulled, that would be a big clue. But the candidate said no, no one has told him that Norm had asked them to hold back, only that they were doing so. That kinda made sense, too, but didn’t shed as much light on the will-he-or-won’t-he mystery as I had hoped.

But other unwilling-to-be-identified Republicans felt strongly that Coleman will decide not to run. One party activist who asked Coleman about it directly — although this was while the recount/trial/appeal was still raging — said Coleman “told me about a month ago that he wasn’t interested in running for governor.”

Another factor that people very close to the ground floor of politics find a serious indication that Coleman isn’t planning a race in 2010 is that his top staff have taken new jobs that commit them through the 2010 cycle — and Coleman apparently didn’t try to get them to hold back until he decided whether to run.

Among the considerable assets Coleman would bring to a race for governor would be his claim on the loyalty of experienced political professionals who have executed statewide races for him. He could, of course, start fresh with a new crew, but doing so would give up one of his advantages.

So allowing his top political staff to scatter seemed to me to be a fairly big clue, at least when I first heard it. But I suppose those people needed to make a living, as it became clearer and clearer that Coleman would lose the recount/contest/appeal. Still, if Coleman had started thinking/planning a backup run for guv, mightn’t he have found a way to keep some of those key staff on call?

Why Coleman might pass

A few other reasons that it makes sense to me that, after mulling his past and his future, Coleman might pass on the governor’s race:

  • He’ll be 61 years old on Election Day 2010.
  • This last campaign put a harsh spotlight on his wife and personal finances moreso even than previous campaigns.
  • Despite expensive tastes in clothes, travel and mortgages, he is not personally wealthy, but has wealthy friends and admirers who could probably help him acquire some serious money once he no longer has to worry about gift bans and political appearances.
  • He’s under federal investigation. (I have no idea how serious the allegations are, or how close they are to either blowing up or being dismissed. One of my sources said to me that if Coleman does run for governor, that will mean that there’s nothing to the charges, because he’d be crazy to enter a new campaign otherwise. And, since the charges — that a wealthy friend bought Coleman gifts of clothing in violation of gift bans, or that the same friend steered money to the Coleman family through a sham insurance contract involving Laurie Coleman’s work — are basically about abuse of public office, he would seem to risk much if he remains in public office.)
  • One of my Republican sources says that recent internal party polls confirm that Minnesota Democrats dislike Coleman with a special ardor, moreso than ever after the Senate race. This will continue to complicate his chances in a general election.

    In fact, Coleman has lost two of his three statewide races. If he keeps running he risks being — with apologies in advance to the memory of Harold Stassen, one of Minnesota’s greatest governors, who became the butt of jokes in his later years because he didn’t know when to stop running for office — Stassenized.
  • All of Coleman’s statewide races have been astonishing tales. In one, he defeated the Democrat, even though the Democrat was named Humphrey, but lost to a professional wrestler from a party that has never won any other sigificant election. In the second, his opponent died in a tragic plane crash two weeks before Election Day, and Coleman’s amazing comeback in the final days was made possible by an over-the-top speech by a grief-stricken mourner. In the third, he ran against a former comedian whose potty-mouthed satirical writings almost destroyed his candidacy. Coleman led in the Election Night count, then gradually lost over seven-plus months of recount/contest/appeal.

All of which should have taught Coleman by now that when people try to tell him how his next race is a can’t-miss proposition, he should smile, tiptoe into a padded room, and scream.

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