Deep down in their blue hearts, DFLers know they missed a huge opportunity Tuesday.
Yes, Barack Obama easily won in Minnesota, which once was defined as a battleground state by the Republican Party.
But the smile on the face of Ron Carey, the state’s Republican Party chairman, is genuine. It easily could have been so much worse for his party.
Across the nation, Democrats were knocking Republican incumbents out of the Senate and the House. In Minnesota, the Republicans held on to three House seats and, pending the results of a recount, the hotly contested U.S. Senate seat. Three of those four — the 3rd and 6th District Congressional races and the Senate race — were as winnable as they’ll ever be.
On top of that, the Republicans still have Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who most believe will have to run for a third term in 2010 if he is to maintain the national profile he began to build this year.
In big political at-bats, DFL struck out
The chance for the DFL was now. The chance is gone. 0-for-3 in three winnable races. 0-for-3 despite having millions to spend. 0-for-3 despite the potential for Obama coattails.
Final tallies aren’t in yet, but the money DFLers had to spend was staggering.
Senate candidate Al Franken raised more than $16 million and had massive amounts of support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to The Hill, the DSCC spent $3.4 million on commercials in just the last week of the campaign. That amount was double what the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee was able to purchase on Sen. Norm Coleman’s behalf, although spending between the two appears to have made it the most expensive Senate race in the nation.
In the final weeks of his campaign, 6th District challenger El Tinklenberg, too, had a ton of cash. He received more than $1 million in contributions from donors, following Michele Bachmann’s “Hardball” moment. Late in the game – perhaps too late – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee arrived with more than $1 million in revenue, plus staff support.
Most staggering of all may have been the 3rd District race, where Democrat Ashwin Madia already reported raising about $2.5 million and has received more than $1 million in support from the DCCC.
Only Steve Sarvi, in the 2nd District, had to struggle throughout the campaign for money. He raised less than $500,000 — a third of what incumbent John Kline had — and received almost no outside support.
So much money – and nothing but a recount to show for it.
Two of the races have to be especially painful to DFLers, the open 3rd District seat and the Senate seat. In both cases, the DFL had stronger candidates on the sideline than they had on the ballot. Both offer textbook examples of how DFL activists remain out of touch with Minnesotans.
Think about it. With a chance to make huge steps, the DFL ended up with candidates — Madia and Franken — who NEVER had run for political office before. Both Madia and Franken proved that winning a nomination is a whole lot different from winning an election.
Start with the 3rd District. Madia, a total unknown, devoted months to wooing party activists and, after a long fight, won endorsement over state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who had proven she could win before real voters.
Bonoff clearly would have been a stronger candidate against Erik Paulsen, a conservative Republican who will now fill the seat held for years by moderate Republican Jim Ramstad. But once she was rejected in the endorsement process, there was no realistic chance for her to take her case to the voters.
That’s because in Minnesota, primaries are not held until September. That late primary date puts all the power in the hands of party activists.
“You simply can’t go into a primary in September,” said Bonoff. “It’s too close to the general election. In the primary, you’re going to spend a lot of money. There are going to be times when opponents are going to be tearing down each other. Then, you have to turn around and jump right into the general election.”
So Bonoff — soccer mom in a suburban district, businesswoman, a proven winner — was out of the race before she ever got a chance to run. The unknown who’d been so good at organizing and fundraising proved a dud in his first time on the ballot.
Some think Legislature might move primaries to June
Bonoff believes there will be an attempt in the state Legislature to move the primary from September to June. But legislators may resist, because they don’t like the idea of mixing the end of sessions with primaries.
The Senate race was stranger than the 3rd District race because there never was an experienced DFL pol in the field.
Remember, at its height, the so-called race for the DFL Senate nomination involved Franken, high-profile attorney Mike Ciresi and college prof Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. None had ever won an election before.
Like most things, politics is all about timing. And not one experienced DFLer office-holder felt the timing was quite right to make a bid for the Senate seat.
What might have been?
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was courted by many DFLers to get into the Senate race. But with just a part of one congressional term under his belt, Walz wasn’t willing to jump into a Senate race against the well-financed Franken with the winner having to face Sen. Norm Coleman, who was a much stronger candidate two years ago than he was by Tuesday.
State Sen. Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud also was approached. But she was a rookie in the state Senate and didn’t feel the time was quite right.
In retrospect, either Walz or Clark would have been a better opponent than Franken.
A huge part of the timing problem both Walz and Clark faced was the huge bankroll of cash and friends Franken started accumulating two years ago.
Franken a stronger worker than candidate
Franken may not have ended up a strong candidate, but he was an incredible worker. He was pounding on doors, shaking hands with activists and raising money, while other, potentially more qualified candidates, were deciding whether they had the courage to get into the race.
“It’s very difficult to decide to get into a race when two of the people you’d be running against (Franken and Ciresi) have so much money,” said Clark.
Clark, by the way, became a big fan of Franken’s in the final weeks of the campaign.
“I’ve traveled a lot with Al in the last few weeks,” she said. “I do think he was a good candidate. He does care deeply about the problems real Minnesotans face.”
But he was so untested.
It’s all pretty stunning. Just a few weeks ago, some DFLers thought there was a chance to win all eight congressional seats.
Now, the party and its candidates have spent millions and have nothing to show for it, except the slim hope of winning a recount.
What lies ahead?
Surely, there’ll be a lot of positioning for a run in the governor’s race in 2010. The three top DFL candidates for that office should be Walz, Clark and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the bright hopes of the party.
But many others — Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, state Sen. Thomas Bakk of Cook, state Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia, former state Rep. Matt Entenza, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner — are either in the race or said to be seriously considering it.
There’s already talk that Bonoff, Steve Sarvi (who lost to incumbent 2nd District Rep. John Kline) and El Tinklenberg (who lost to 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann) will try again to win seats in the House.
But so much changes in two years.
Bachmann’s district, for example, almost certainly will be redrawn following the 2010 census — or may disappear all together. There already are whispers that Bachmann has her eyes set on running for Senate against DFLer Amy Klobuchar or running for governor, if Pawlenty decides not to run.
Hard economic times and budget woes in Minnesota may dim the futures of the young DFL stars such as Kelliher, Clark and Rep. Tony Sertich, the House majority leader from Chisholm.
The fact is that DFLers had their huge chance Tuesday. They’re left with only a recount.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.