Just a couple months ago, Dr. Brian Davis, a Republican candidate in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, thought he had a legitimate shot at beating his opponent, Democratic first-term Rep. Tim Walz. And why not? Davis, a physician at the Mayo Clinic, was holding his own in debates, and had the type of conservative bona fides that have traditionally played well in the district in a race that was strong on issues.
But in Tuesday’s election, Davis didn’t even come close to Walz, who triumphed 62 to 32 per cent. Though some prognostications put the seat firmly in Walz’s hands, there was belief that Davis could make a strong run. Didn’t happen. Was he surprised?
“Yes, I’m very surprised,” Davis acknowledged late last night. “We just didn’t have the resources.”
By that Davis means money, but there’s more explanation to Walz’s victory than that. For most of the last 100 years, the 1st , which encompasses the southern strip of the state, has gone mostly to Republican candidates, most recently to Gil Gutknecht, who served for 12 years before Walz’s surprise victory in 2006. Then, it was widely assumed that Walz rode to Washington on the winds of anti-Bush sentiment. This time around, Walz’s victory is about one factor: Walz himself.
“It could very well be that he’s the perfect candidate for that district,” David Schultz, who teaches politics and government at Hamline University, said this morning. “He’s a moderate Democrat who can relate to constituents down there.”
For his part, Walz, a National Guard veteran and a school teacher from Mankato, thinks the idea that the 1st is a conservative district is overplayed. “It’s a pragmatic district,” Walz said just after midnight this morning. “For me, it’s always about building a coalition. People here want to make sure they have a voice.”
Moderates or money?
Schultz says that the district is “moderating” as immigrants and business-class voters move into places like Rochester and Mankato. And while Walz’s two victories bear that out, President Bush won the district in 2004, and early results indicate that the district was somewhat evenly split between Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign.
“It’s not a Democratic or Republican district; there’s no Democratic shift,” Walz maintained after the election, pointing to his record on veterans affairs and agricultural issues. “We built the biggest grassroots apparatus in the state.”
Walz is exceedingly organized and on point, and going into Election Day he knew exactly how many votes he would need to win the district. (In garnering 207,000 to Davis’ 109,000, he bested his goal by 25,000 votes.) And he also trumped Davis in the money department. Walz said his campaign spent about $2.4 million; Davis said he spent some $880,000.
And that may be made the biggest difference in that Walz was able to run a spate of television spots in the winding days. Davis, in fact, is still irked at one ad that tied him to a 23 percent sales tax, an idea floated by some Republicans as a way to replace the federal income tax. Davis said he was in favor of studying it, but never said he would vote for it. “We just didn’t have the resources to counter something like that,” he said, with a hint of sour grapes.
(In response, Walz said: “I’m not going to comment on their campaign, but as a football coach, I always tell my players, we never look for excuses.”)
In a way, Davis may have been hurt by his party’s desire to keep U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in her 6th District seat. In the aftermath of her “anti-American” comments on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” she needed national party support to knock back Elwyn Tinklenberg. And the national GOP was likewise focused on keeping Sen. Norm Coleman in office. In other words, according to Davis, he received no national party money.
Ultimately, though, Walz’s standing as an electable Democrat in a conservative district has everything to do with his deep ties in the community — many of his former students and those who served with him and under him in the National Guard are politically active on his behalf — and his skills as a formidable campaigner.
“It’s time to get back to business,” Walz said. “People in the district expect me to look for pragmatic change.”
And for Davis? “It would be premature to consider my political future,” he said, pondering his leave of absence from the Mayo Clinic. “I have to go back to work on Thursday.”
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.