New effort to move Minnesota primaries likely to face legislative ‘sandbagging’

Like Red River flooding, efforts to change the Minnesota primary elections from September to June have become a frequent spring occurrence.

Sure enough again this year, the Red River is roaring and a handful of legislators are trying to buck the odds and move the primary date. Likely, though, that effort will be sandbagged by legislators who don’t like the idea of facing more competitive races.

The process of moving the primary is to officially begin today, when the Senate’s Government Operations Committee hears a bill that would move the primary to June.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, has the support of a broad spectrum of legislators, party activists and good-government types, who have been pushing for the change since at least the mid-1990s.

More competitive primaries?
The argument always has been made that earlier primaries might create more competitive races. In the last election, for example, it’s almost certain that DFL Senate candidate Al Franken would have faced a tough primary battle, had the primary been held in June instead of September.

Sen. Terri Bonoff
Sen. Terri Bonoff

Additionally, a candidate such as Bonoff may well have run a primary race against Ashwin Madia, an unknown who won DFL endorsement for the 3rd District congressional race before losing to Republican Erik Paulsen in the general election.

Instead, Franken faced only token primary opposition, and Madia got a pass to the general election.

Plain and simple, the current late primary date discourages competitive primaries. For unendorsed candidates, the current system is a lose-lose proposition.

“With the system we have now, if you spend the summer and early fall running against the endorsed candidate, the theory is you weaken the endorsed candidate,” said Bonoff. “Then, if that candidate loses in the general election, you’re blamed. But even if you win the primary, you end up using every bit of money you raised and you’ve used up all of your energy and then, if you lose in the general election, you’re still blamed for costing your party a chance to win.”

In her case, Bonoff, who lost an endorsement contest to Madia, says she wouldn’t have run against him even if the primary had been held in June.

“I gave my word I wouldn’t run against the endorsed candidate,” she said.

On the other hand …
“If the primary had been in June, I might not have given my word,” she added.

Beyond the competitive factor, the 2008 election has provided two more compelling reasons for moving the primary from its current fall date.

One, 2008 has reminded us that incredibly close races sometimes require time-consuming recount processes. What if there were a primary race as tight as the race still being contested by Franken and incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman? How could a winner be determined in time to get a name on the ballot?

Jim Gelbman, deputy secretary of state, said the courts would have to move swiftly, within a matter of days, to declare a winner.

Rep. Laura Brod
Rep. Laura Brod

Secondly, the 2008 race has shown how hugely important absentee ballots are. Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, points out that with the current late primary, there’s little time for voters, such as soldiers serving overseas, to receive and return ballots in time for those ballots to be counted. Brod wants the primary to be moved up to at least August to help solve the timing problem.

Brod’s desire to move the primary is shared in the House by Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park.  He pushed a similar measure, without success, in 2007.

Opposition seems strongest in Greater Minnesota
“Generally, the opposition has come from legislators from Greater Minnesota,” Simon said. “If I were to give you a composite of what they fear, it would go like this: ‘I’m here (in session) until the third week in May. If the primary is in June, some young whippersnapper could be out in my district campaigning and I wouldn’t even be there to compete.’

“I try to reverse that argument,” Simon said. “I point out that when we’re in session, they’re in the news more. It’s very different for legislators from Greater Minnesota than it is for those of us here. In their districts, they’re always in the news. They’re like rock stars. Everybody in their district knows them. Me? I’m just another guy from the suburbs.”

It seldom has seemed more urgent for the Legislature to act if new primary dates are going to be in place for the 2010 elections. That’s when the  DFL gubernatorial race almost certainly will involve at least two or three serious candidates running in the primary. If Gov. Tim Pawlenty decides not to seek a third term, the Republicans also may well have a wide-open primary race.

The effort to move the primary has the support of operatives from both major political parties.  The current system has the emphasis all backward, said Brian Melendez, co-chairman of the DFL.

“Realistically, the election process goes from Caucus Night to Election Night,” Melendez said. “As it is now, you can spend seven to eight months determining who the party’s candidate is but only a few weeks for voters to get to know the candidates for office.”

Though a number of Republican Party activists share Melendez’ belief that the primary should be moved, he believes that a number of Republicans in the Legislature aren’t willing to budge because they think only the DFL will have a hotly contested gubernatorial race in 2010.

“But if Pawlenty decides not to run, they’re going to be in the same position we are,” Melendez said.

In the end, Melendez said, this decision shouldn’t be based on what might happen in the next election but what improves the process into the future.

Bonoff is hopeful that she can get the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor, but Simon’s not so optimistic of the House acting. He believes next year is more likely.

Brod, however, thinks there may be another approach if committees in the House aren’t responsive.

“I can see this coming up from the floor as an amendment,” she said.

Of course, the floor is filled with sandbaggers, who’ve successfully held back this reform for years.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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