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State campaign leaders for Obama and McCain taking different tacks

By Doug Grow | Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Jeff Blodgett, the Wellstone veteran, and Ben Golnik, the relative Republican “youth,” agree on Minnesota’s importance on the presidential electoral map.

Jeff Blodgett was among the thousands at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center on June 3 when he made his decision. As he watched — and felt — all that was around him, the man who was Paul Wellstone’s campaign manager for three U.S. Senate runs decided he would accept an offer to run Barack Obama’s Minnesota campaign.

“When you feel that energy, it’s pretty hard to sit on the sideline,” said Blodgett of the Obama victory rally that drew more than an estimated 32,000 Twin Citians to fill Xcel and the streets surrounding the arena. He has taken a leave from his position as director of Wellstone Action for 4½ months of nonstop work, exhilaration and anxiety.

His counterpart, Ben Golnik, the regional political director for Sen. John McCain’s campaign, comes at the presidential campaign a little differently. He was among the scores of campaign workers laid off when the McCain express was seemingly doomed a little more than a year ago.

In retrospect, he said he didn’t really believe the campaign would wither away.

“At that point in the campaign, everything was fluid,” said Golnik. “He was always the underdog, but he’s also a workhorse. He’s at his best when he’s an underdog.”

Although the checks stopped coming in, Golnik never really left the campaign. He continued working as a volunteer and, a few weeks ago, became one of McCain’s 11 regional campaign directors. Golnik is to run campaign operations in Minnesota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

Ben Golnik
Courtesy of Ben Golnik
Ben Golnik

That seems like a massive hunk of ground to cover, but Golnik points out that Republicans are confident about most of those states — and have high hopes for Minnesota. Therefore, most of his time will be spent in Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.

Campaigns, campaign leaders differ in style, structure
There are big differences between the state campaign leaders and their campaigns.

For starters, Blodgett is 46, and in political field work, that’s old. 

“Most of the people (who will be working the Obama campaign) are half my age,” he said.

Golnik is just 31.  Perhaps because of his youth, or perhaps because he has worked directly for the Republican Party in Minnesota and, before that, Vermont, he wears his partisanship on his sleeve.

For example, Golnik was all juiced up about Obama’s decision to forgo public financing when we talked on Friday.

“A huge flip-flop!” said Golnik. 

Do you think voters really will care about how candidates finance their campaigns?

“Absolutely!” said Golnik. “It shows people who he really is.”

Blodgett, who never has worked directly for the DFL, is a lifelong progressive, but there aren’t so many exclamation marks in his political conversations. Though filled with progressives, Wellstone Action, the organization Blodgett has run, holds training sessions on grass-roots organizing for people of all political persuasions.

Blodgett even allows as to how he moved toward Obama slowly during the primary process.

“I was uncommitted early on,” he said. “I thought it was a great (Democratic) field. As the campaign went along, I began to feel more and more connected to his message of hope. I kept gradually moving to his camp.”

There’s also a substantial difference in the structures of their campaigns.

Jeff Blodgett
Photo by Terry Gydesen
Jeff Blodgett

The McCain structure, with 11 field directors, each reporting directly to the campaign director, Rick Davis, is unique. Each of the field directors is supposed to have considerable power in making such big decisions as buying TV ads. But some Republicans fear that the system will invite chaos.

With a 50-state strategy, the Obama campaign has a director in each state, a first for the party. Those directors will report to Steve Hildebrand, a Mountain Lake, Minn., native and deputy campaign manager, who, like Blodgett, is a Carleton College graduate.

It is Blodgett’s belief that each of the state directors will have independence in developing plans for turning out the vote and in using volunteers. “We control what’s happening on the ground,” in Blodgett’s words. The big strategic decisions will come from the national campaign office.

Campaign ‘energy levels’ different, too
But at the moment, at least, the big difference in the campaigns is energy.

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The Obama campaign is overflowing with youthful volunteers.

“Tina Smith (a senior adviser to the Obama campaign in Minnesota) told me, ‘It’s not about crowd building; it’s about crowd control,”’ said Blodgett, laughing. “Our big job is to harness all the energy we have… . I believe that by the time this campaign is over, almost every voter in the state will have had at least one knock on the door from one of our volunteers. We want significant voter presence throughout the state. We want people greeted at their workplaces by our volunteers. We want people forming discussion groups.”

To date, McCain hasn’t generated that sort of excitement in Minnesota. He was a nonfactor in the Republican caucuses, despite the strong support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It’s been very difficult for hosts of the Republican National Convention to attract young volunteers to work at the convention where McCain will accept his nomination.

“It’s a fair assessment that Obama is exciting the young,” said Golnik. “But… .”

Golnik believes Democrats are “very divided” and will remain that because of the contest between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was the two-person nature of the race, not party loyalty, he says, that had Democrats setting primary turnout records all over the country.

Beyond that, he believes his candidate will continue to make in-roads with the great silent majority with the sort of conversational town-hall meeting McCain held in St. Paul last week.

“That’s how he turned his campaign around in New Hampshire,” he said.

Golnik also expects big support from an “Independents for McCain” drive, headed in Minnesota by former DFL congressman Tim Penny, who ran strong enough as an Independent candidate for governor in 2002 to destroy any chance Roger Moe might have had in defeating Pawlenty.

Blodgett and Golnik do face a different sort of pressure in Minnesota.

The Republicans would LIKE to win Minnesota. On good days, they even THINK they can win in Minnesota. 

The Democrats MUST win the state.

“We can’t let down for a minute,” said Blodgett. “This is a must-win state for Obama; therefore, we will take nothing for granted. But that’s the way it should be.”

There will be constant meetings with former Clinton supporters. And there will be a big push to get more Minnesotans registered to vote than ever before. That doesn’t seem like an easy task, given the fact that Minnesota typically has let the nation in voter turnout.

“There was something like 80 percent (actually, 79 percent) in Minnesota four years ago,” said Blodgett. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. If you look at Minneapolis, voter turnout was in the low 70s, that means there’s an area where we have room to grow. If we can add a percentage point or two (to turnout) we’ll be OK.”

As a campaign manager for Wellstone and a consultant to both Amy Klobuchar and John Kerry, Blodgett is undefeated in Minnesota politics.

But Golnik was 13 when Blodgett was running Wellstone’s first campaign. He grew up in the Northeast and is not easily impressed by such events in the past.

“We’re making inroads everywhere,” he said.

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.