The race is not always to the swift. Sometimes, it’s to those who can throw the most stuff at their opponent.
So, in the final days of the race for DFL endorsement for the open 3rd District congressional seat, state Sen. Terri Bonoff, trailing in delegate support, is throwing everything she’s got at upstart Ashwin Madia.
“According to her, I’m a Republican and I’m a deadbeat without a job,” Madia says of the way the campaign tone has changed in the last few days. “I’m a little surprised. I don’t really know what to say. Politics, I guess. But it’s not my style. I think it disrespects the voters.”
There are all sorts of reasons this race has become so passionate — and, of late, a little nasty.
DFL senses rare chance to claim traditionally Republican seat
The big reason for the DFL adrenaline rush is that for the first time in 50 years, DFLers think they have a chance of winning the congressional seat that has belonged to Republicans Clark MacGregor (1961 to 1971), Bill Frenzel (1971 to 1991) and Jim Ramstad (1991 to present). Think of that. That’s a run of DFL losses that dates to JFK’s time.
But with Ramstad retiring and Republicans having to run on a bleak record — a failing economy, an unending war and a broken health care system — the DFL prospects look bright. Or at least brighter than they’ve looked since Roy Wier last wore the DFL label as the district’s congressman. He won his first race in 1949 and his last in 1958.
The plan of DFL insiders: Put up a moderate person with a proven track record in November and go after Republican Erik Paulsen, a seven-term state representative from Eden Prairie.
Bonoff, 50, seemed to fit the plan. The Minnetonka woman with a business background was able to twice defeat a Republican in Senate District 43.
She has received almost all of the traditional party support, from former Vice President Walter Mondale to Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller.
Ciresi joins DFL’s heavy hitters in backing Bonoff
That trend, of DFL heavyweights lining up behind Bonoff, continued this week when attorney Mike Ciresi endorsed Bonoff.
Ciresi’s support is of questionable value, given his inability to excite anyone in his aborted run for the Senate. Still, it’s somewhat intriguing because Madia was an associate at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi until he left the firm in October to devote himself full time to his run for Congress.
Did Madia, a 30-year-old lawyer just out of the Marine Corps, do something to offend Ciresi?
Ciresi did not return a phone call.
Madia says he’s sure it’s nothing personal, just politics.
“He was a very senior partner, and I was very junior,” says Madia. “I never worked on a case with him, and I didn’t really know him at all until we were both campaigning. I would have liked his endorsement; he’s a good guy. I just think he knew a lot of the people who support her.”
Politicians aren’t the only political power brokers rallying around Bonoff. This weekend, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, who have helped lead so many DFLers to money, are throwing a fundraiser at their home on her behalf.
The Kaplans, residents of the 5th District, say they don’t often get involved in congressional races outside their home district. But they like Bonoff, because they think she can win and because she’s been a supporter of Barack Obama, whom the Kaplans adore. They’ve held three Obama fundraisers, including one with Obama on hand.
“Everything we know about her is great,” says Sam Kaplan. “We’d never heard of this guy Ashwin.”
Neither had anyone else. Bonoff now admits that she didn’t anticipate Madia as a factor. She thought that when she became the only legislator from the district to get into the race, she would have fairly smooth sailing to endorsement.
“I knew endorsement would be hard, but not this hard,” she says. “It’s always a little difficult for a centrist to get endorsement. But I felt strong.”
Madia isn’t without some traditional DFL support. This morning, he received the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Minnesota State Council, which represents more than 20,000 workers.
“We like the way he has attracted new people,” said Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU Local 26.
‘Obama factor’ complicates Bonoff’s campaign
Bonoff did all the traditional things, in terms of lining up support and money. But then came Obama. He has changed everything in DFL politics, especially in the 3rd District.
More than 30,000 DFLers showed up to caucus in the 3rd, Bonoff says. And that created a ripple effect that she’s still feeling.
Bonoff says that around caucus time, she, like most traditional candidates, had connected with the relatively small group of people who are most likely to serve as delegates at district conventions. But suddenly, there were all these enthused newcomers who became district convention delegates. About 80 percent of district convention delegates were first-timers, a huge change from the past, she says
“These people had not been in my universe,” she admits.
While she had been dealing with the traditional players, Madia was hitting the newcomers right in the heart.
In district after district, Madia, a first-time, nontraditional candidate, won the support of first-time, nontraditional delegates. He enters the April 12 Congressional District Convention, where an endorsement likely will be bestowed, with a substantial delegate lead.
By his count, Madia has 86.5 delegate votes, with 95 needed for the 60 percent endorsement. The Bonoff convention, which claims 65 delegates, believes Madia has closer to 82 delegates. There are 11 elected delegates who remain uncommitted and 22 superdelegates, elected officials from the 3rd District. To date, only two of those are in Madia’s camp.
Despite her substantial math problem, Bonoff has continued to say that she’ll abide by the party’s choice for endorsement.
To counter delegate trend, Bonoff turns up heat on Madia
To turn around Madia’s clear lead, Bonoff has turned up the heat. This week, DFLers in the 3rd received a mailing that claimed Madia had been a Republican until recently, that he “has a history of denouncing unions” and that his “past positions on education differ from today.”
“She makes it sound like I was saying some of these things just yesterday,” Madia says in response.
In fact, he did support John McCain for president in 2000, though, while in the Marines, he supported John Kerry and has actively supported DFL candidates ever since.
Madia suggests it’s rather silly for DFLers to put down former Republicans, given the fact that any DFLer who is endorsed will need to woo some disenchanted Republicans if the DFL is to end a half-century slump.
And he did write some rather tepid stuff about unions for the Minnesota Daily in 1996, when professors were threatening to organize.
“Unions are more interested in politics than kids,” was one of the things he wrote then. In another piece, Madia was critical of the NEA, calling it the “single biggest impediment to educational reform.”
What of that vile stuff?
“I was 18 years old when I was writing that,” says Madia. “People do change as they grow older.”
Bonoff is unapologetic about the changing tone of the campaign. This is the fourth quarter of the campaign, she says, and she’s trailing.
“I’m not nervous, I’m not afraid, I’m driven,” she says. “I do believe I am the candidate who can win this district, and I believe it’s important that we do win this district, because I believe this campaign is about the fact that this nation is in trouble. We must change directions.”
To buttress her claim that she’s the candidate who can win, Bonoff often refers to a poll that was commissioned by her campaign a few weeks ago. The poll shows that in head-to-head competition, Bonoff leads Paulsen, 44-40. The same poll shows that Madia trails Paulsen, 43-40.
Given margins of error, the poll shows everything to be pretty much a dead heat. And actually, no one is more excited about the results than Madia.
“I know they released it to show that I couldn’t win,” he says. “But the way I see it is that I’m the guy who nobody’s heard of yet and I’m already within three points of the Republican. We’re thrilled.”
He’d better also remained nimble. The finish line is coming up fast, and the track is going to get muddier.
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.