The DFL Dozen: Handicapping the crowded field of 2010 candidates for Minnesota governor

Alphabetizing the DFL candidates for the 2010 Minnesota governor’s race may be the only way to keep them all straight.

Handicapping what Gov. Tim Pawlenty will do next year in terms of seeking another term is a tough task, but figuring out the political odds on the DFL’s list of declared and potential candidates may be even harder.

Keeping up with the sheer number of candidates today is demanding work for DFL delegates and party activists, let alone most Minnesotans. I’ve avoided the topic for several months, justifying it to myself by saying, “No one is paying attention,” and “The 2008 Senate election isn’t even done yet.”

But I’m ready now with the first of what is likely to be my many musings on the governor’s race and the multiple changing scenarios that will develop in the 17 months before the September 2010 primary.

We’ll start with the field of six declared DFL candidates, each of them raising money and printing literature. They are: Senate Tax Chairman Tom Bakk, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, former state Sen. Steve Kelley and House Health and Human Services Policy Chair Paul Thissen.

Then come the other likely DFL candidates: St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

And then the possible candidates: House Commerce Chair Joe Atkins, Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark and Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat.

That’s 12 candidates, and I still may have left someone out.

For fun, let’s assume they are all in the race and that the majority are willing to go to a primary. 

Let’s take them alphabetically and examine some key considerations:

Rep. Joe Atkins — Atkins of Inver Grove Heights has been the boldest legislator in saying he wants to be governor, but the talk hasn’t been as loud this year.  His role as chairman of the House Commerce Committee means he has the most active dialogue with business for a DFLer.  It’s tough to see, however, how Atkins gets traction or raises the money to be a serious candidate.

Sen. Tom Bakk — The idea of a plain-spoken Iron Ranger running should be very appealing for the DFL, but the challenge for Bakk will be getting the DFL endorsement. While the DFL doesn’t get as many votes from the Range as it once did, the Cook legislator could deliver substantial numbers in a primary. In the general election, he could be the DFL’s most appealing candidate in Greater Minnesota since the late Gov. Rudy Perpich.

Sen. Tarryl Clark — As assistant majority leader, she has been the face and voice of DFLers in the Senate for a few years. If Gaertner and Kelliher are both in the race, the St. Cloud legislator  will need the DFL endorsement, which won’t be an easy task for her. A Clark win is tough to imagine, but crazy things have happened in Minnesota.

Mayor Chris Coleman — He inherited plenty of challenges as St. Paul mayor and has handled them well.  With strong union relationships and a very articulate, visionary style, Coleman will have a strong chance of securing the party endorsement. Even without the endorsement, he would be a strong candidate in the primary. And other than Bakk, he appears to be the most attractive DFL candidate in Greater Minnesota in a general election.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton — Like Entenza, he is likely to have enough personal resources to be financially competitive in a primary. However, his public support was waning rapidly during the final years of his Senate term.  If Dayton found an issue (such as prescription drug costs, which he used in 2000) he could gain minimal traction, but he still is not likely to win.

Former Rep. Matt Entenza — His campaign started in 2007, when the former St. Paul legislator  launched the MN2020 think tank to raise policy issues about the state, many of them focused outstate.  Because of his personal wealth, resources for a primary campaign should not be an issue. But he is hampered by his withdrawal as the DFL endorsed candidate in the 2006 attorney general’s race after criticism of his handling of campaign finance and research issues. You can’t count him out, but it is difficult to see how he builds a substantial base of support in a crowded race.  One piece of hot buzz is that 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison will endorse Entenza early. That would help him rebuild some DFL-street cred, but it still would be a long haul. 

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner — The first to enter the race last year, she also gives the DFL its first chance to tout someone with public safety experience since former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza. If Kelliher doesn’t run, Gaertner could be the dark horse in a crowded primary.  She shouldn’t be underestimated, because she is politically very disciplined and did beat the odds in 1994, when she won the county attorney’s race.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher — She is thinking about running, but the pressure of legislative leadership responsibilities will pull at the Minneapolis House leader until the session wraps up for the year.  She is so improved in communication and in articulating a more moderate DFL position for the House caucus that she would be formidable in the endorsement battle and in a primary.  Women’s groups are likely to pressure her to run.

Former Sen. Steve Kelley — He is becoming a perennial candidate, and an unlucky one at that.  The former legislator from Hopkins ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and was the DFL nominee for attorney general after Entenza dropped out but lost to current Attorney General Lori Swanson in the primary. Kelley has the policy ideas and the right attitude on innovation, but his chances at success are very slim. 

Hennepin County Chair Mike Opat — His name isn’t regularly mentioned as a candidate, but he is considering it. His bold leadership on the Twins ballpark and his ability to articulate a vision and bring newness the race could be strengths.  His best chances are in a crowded DFL primary, where his scrappy and bold style could break through. 

Mayor R.T. Rybak — Minneapolis’ leader is the biggest mystery in the field. He has a loyal following that is encouraging him to run, but the sense that he won’t play well outside the city is strong.  His early, high-profile role in the Obama campaign gave him great access to the activists, but many of them are new and may not be as passionate for this race. Without the DFL endorsement, Rybak will have a major challenge getting traction in a primary.

Rep. Paul Thissen — He is the least known of the field statewide but is also clearly a rising star within the party.  His thoughtful approach on health and human services, hard work and demeanor make him a very attractive candidate.  His close relationship with Speaker Kelliher would make his candidacy curious if she also decides to run, but the two Minneapolis lawmakers will have to work that out. Thissen isn’t likely to win this time around, but watch for him in the future.

So there you have it, longer than a Letterman Top 10 List and as unclear as the Franken-Coleman race at 11 o’clock on Election Night. 

If I had to pick the top three, they’d be Bakk, Coleman and Kelliher — in, of course, alphabetical order.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Steve Grooms on 03/27/2009 - 08:33 am.

    I’d like the chances of Kelliher in a normal political year. She has superb political instincts and an appealing media presence. Above all, she has an ability to talk about tricky issues in a way that conveys trust and respect. She’s also got a fine sense of where voters are. Her recent speech on making political leadership transparent and accountable shows she can appeal to voters of all political stripes.

    But she is cursed this year with being in the middle of a budget battle that is going to make a lot of voters unhappy and not make a hero of any politician who has to defend major cuts or tax increases. This will be an ugly legislative session, and she’s gonna have to be more than gifted to come out of it without being badly tarred.

    Bakk is well-positioned, but he doesn’t have a very positive media presence. He’s more solid than electric. I just don’t see him catching on fire anywhere except with his home base.

    Coleman looks like the best bet to me. He speaks well, he has a good record and he will be perceived as having earned a shot at this level of government. He has Ryback’s positives without Ryback’s negatives.

  2. Submitted by Aaron Brown on 03/27/2009 - 10:23 am.

    All analysis of the Iron Range’s power in a DFL endorsement/primary can be seen in the 1998 governors race and 2000 senate race. Doug Johnson carried 19 percent statewide, as did Jerry Janezich respectively. That was almost entirely regional support. That’s a workable base in a big primary field, but Johnson also had a big primary field. This is all about coalition building and the candidate that can build one is the front runner. The Iron Range is a big factor, but Bakk has to figure out how to sell in the metro and suburbs. I’ve written at my blog that it’s possible, but not an easy task.

    I cover Iron Range news and politics at

  3. Submitted by Kyle Edwards on 03/27/2009 - 10:44 am.

    I’ve actually been hearing Chris Coleman is a pretty poor speaking. I’ve only seen him once in person, but that’s also the impression I got. I also feel that the flak he may get from the DFL rank and file over the RNC (deserved or not) will hurt him in an endorsement or primary fight.

    I’m behind Entenza. He is one of the most articulate people I have ever heard in terms of communicating complex policy solutions, always in a Progressive light. Entenza has also been one of the most important leaders returning the DFL to the majority in the House. He has the drive to beat Pawlenty, or anyone else who runs, and he’ll work harder than any candidate.

  4. Submitted by Randy Fordice on 03/27/2009 - 11:11 am.

    You missed Sen. John Marty (you did note it’s a crowded field). It’s still early and he is a long shot but as a champion for health care and ethics reform, he could gain some ground in the coming months.

  5. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 03/27/2009 - 11:28 am.

    As usual, I’m backing the candidate, Paul Thissen, Mr. Olson thinks is least likely to succeed.
    But who is Mr. Olson to know more about the DFL and the Minnesota electorate than myself, 50 years and 150 campaigns experienced?

    The good news: 5 of 6 of the named candidates would be exceptionally good governors. You’ll find me campaigning hard for the DFL candidate, along with thousands of others. The incumbent is almost as unpopular as was Bush last year, and more culable in our State’s deficient funding of education and infrastucture.

  6. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/27/2009 - 11:40 am.

    It’s not just the “DFL rank and file” who might object to Coleman’s handling of the RNC, which I can’t recall him apologizing for as of yet. I know of at least one elderly resident of an downtown condo who was stung about the process after being ordered around by police on horses while tending to some trampled flowers in Mears park.

  7. Submitted by TJ Pavey on 03/27/2009 - 12:27 pm.

    Whomever ends up with the nod, I hope that the other candidates respect the nomination. Pawlenty won two elections with help of a split democratic vote. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that we can get someone in who is willing to pass instant runoff voting in this state. I applaud the city of Minneapolis for trying to push this out. We’ve had to many candidates winning elections by default when the second party gets split.

  8. Submitted by keith hawkinson on 03/27/2009 - 01:02 pm.

    What you omit in your analysis is Mark Dayton
    is the only potential candiate to have already
    proven he can win a state wide election.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/27/2009 - 02:00 pm.

    “Likeability” seems to paramount with many voters. Thus, Mike Hatch went down and Franken is barely scraping by, when the Democratic candidate should have easily won the Senatorial election in ’08, especially. I know personally (for what that’s worth!)that many otherwise-Dems voted for the Independent party candidate just because of Franken’s past “bad language.” Let’s face it, all too many folks seem to look at the image and not at the substance. IRV is a necessity to get around voter superficiality.

  10. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/27/2009 - 02:37 pm.

    Whoever ends up with the nod, they will have the same message: “revenue enhancements and investments.” Meaning – tax and spend.

  11. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/27/2009 - 02:54 pm.

    I agree with Pavey. Hard to believe we are going through all the nonsense we are going through because Judi Dutcher didn’t know what E-85 meant. Oh — also, thanks “Team Minnesota”!

  12. Submitted by Gene Martinez on 03/27/2009 - 03:16 pm.

    Actually, Steve Kelley ran for Governor in 2006. He ran for the Senate in 2000.

    A candidate like John Marty who supports single payer health care, especially if he is the only one, will have an advantage with progressives. And this is a substantial group of people who will be likely to attend the caucuses and conventions.

  13. Submitted by Blois Olson on 03/27/2009 - 03:39 pm.

    Thanks for all the comments.

    A couple things, Steve Kelley ran for Senate in 2000, and governor and AG in 2006. Sorry for the mistake.

    Sorry I forgot John Marty. Here is my take on Marty:

    Senator John Marty – Marty is one of the most populist of the field and surprised many by raising $30K in one month to kick off his campaign. That said, this isn’t 1994 when Marty was the DFL nominee and got crushed by Gov.Arne Carlson. The field is stronger this time and people know him better now. Not to mention many DFLers remember his campaign challenges in 1994 and can’t imagine risking that in 2010.

  14. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/27/2009 - 04:53 pm.

    This field, crowded with intelligent and capable progressive candidates, will, I hope, induce the DFL to hold the primary election in June to give the winner more time to campaign state-wide (and for the others to campaign for him/her).

    Note: Mayor Coleman was not in control of police activity during the RNC. That would be the Ramsey County Sheriff, who was in overall charge of all police actions. He reported to one or more of the following: the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Secret Service and who knows who all else. The mayor HAS apologized for the harm done to innocent people, but Sheriff Fletcher has not even though he is the one responsible.

  15. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 03/27/2009 - 09:37 pm.

    It may seem unfair to many who were not in downtown St Paul during the early days of September, but there is a depth of anger about the RNC that is not going away any time soon. In fact, Chris Coleman has said that he would “do things differently” if he could have a do-over, but he has not actually apologized for the massive paramilitary siege. More importantly, he has done everything he could to discourage any investigation that would include actions of the police or of Bob Fletcher’s office. So he should not be expecting forgiveness when he hasn’t asked for it.

    Susan Gaertner is even more tainted by her continuing pursuit of charges stemming mostly from the Ramsay County Sheriff’s paranoid delusions. So she is suspect not only for her lack of support of basic citizen freedoms, but her judgment is suspect as a prosecutor can be called into question for taking cases to court where there is little evidence for any likely conviction. And, again, there have been absolutely no charges against illegal police actions, despite ample video evidence.

    Most people weren’t there, of course. Most of the media didn’t cover the police violence during the convention. And most people would prefer to put the whole thing behind them, like a bad dream. But it will be interesting to see what ongoing demonstrations against Chris Coleman and Susan Gaertner do to their political careers. My guess is that it will leave a bad taste in voters’ mouths, even if they don’t understand why they have such a negative view of these two candidates.

  16. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/27/2009 - 11:55 pm.

    Charley is right. Considering the most active people were also more likely to show up at the big march on the first day of the convention, and who knows how many stayed away because of the intimidation, that’s going to be the central issue for Coleman or Gaertner. They may say things that prevent people remaining angry at them, but that only means grudging support if they get the endorsement. There are plenty of candidates without that problem.

    Marty lost badly 15 years ago, but he was 15 years younger. He has a lot more life experience and political experience. Remember that Obama got trounced when he ran for the US House. Bill Clinton lost his first try at reelection as governor. Paul Wellstone lost his first race too. Maybe instead of assuming it’s 1994 all over again, Marty should be judged by how he runs this campaign.

  17. Submitted by Tim Nelson on 03/29/2009 - 01:39 pm.

    As an outsider, I still remember how Amy Klobuchar was rated by the DFL foot soldiers before she won the nomination. One would have thought she was to the right of the entire Congress.

    The nomination will go to someone who can’t win, again.

    The Independence party candidate will take the moderate positions, and win all the debates, again.

    Don’t leave any room for moderate positions, like Amy did, and the DFL has a shot.

    Swallow hard, and nominate a centrist.

  18. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/29/2009 - 02:04 pm.

    Had dinner with Steve Kelley last week (along with a couple of hundred close friends at a DFL event) and was impressed by his general grasp of the issues and ability to propose new solutions to old problems.
    I’m not sure that he’s electable, but I’m backing him for now. In electability terms, I suspect that Matt Entenza is the most professional politician of the bunch.

  19. Submitted by Samuel Stern on 03/29/2009 - 03:39 pm.

    Senator Marty is scheduled to appear at MinnRoast. You may be in for some heat yourself!

  20. Submitted by Paul Rozycki on 04/01/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    John Marty is running – but now you know that!
    As for your take on John Marty, the people who hold 1994 against him are the same “electability” ones who got us Al Franken (who ran on electability) instead of Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. My bet is that had Jack gotten the endorsement, the people of Minnesota would have seen the real deal and voted for him. “Electability” is a false precept that leads us to the opposite experience. The more we confine our political thinking to electabilty, the farther we get from what moves voters in the end.
    Which leads me to my 10 second pitch for John Marty: He’s the real deal; he’s running on what moves people NOW: progressive politics.

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