Tim Pawlenty has left the keys to the governor’s mansion lying on that kitchen table he’s so fond of talking about. But it’s not clear whether either DFLers or Republicans can put forward a candidate capable of picking them up.
The governor’s office is right there for the taking. Both parties say they want it. But when it comes time to endorse a candidate, the parties share a similar problem: Activists may well demand purity of principles over electability.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, a moderate to conservative DFLer, laughs — a little — when discussing the reality of contemporary party politics.
“The interest groups will talk in terms of choosing someone who is electable,” Opat said, “but in fact, they’re defining the candidate who is acceptable to them.”
Both parties’ endorsed candidates unlikely to appeal to middle
Problem is, of course, the candidate who is acceptable to the extremes of either party isn’t likely the candidate who will appeal to a vast cross-section of Minnesotans. Beyond that, Opat points out, the candidate who represents either end of the political spectrum likely isn’t going to be particularly effective at building consensus and governing.
How dicey is the problem?
Charlie Weaver, a former state legislator who now heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, is considered a potential Republican candidate, someone who comes close to what may be mainstream Minnesota.
But when I asked Weaver if he considers himself a moderate, his response was immediate.
“I’m careful not to call myself that,” Weaver said. “When you say moderate in the Republican Party, that means pro-choice. I’m not pro-choice. I never have been.”
So how would he describe himself?
“I’m conservative but electable,” he said, laughing.
Electable. What a concept.
Effort to change system a bit fell to a veto
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, is a maverick DFLer, who has been trying to change the elections process in Minnesota so that the primary is moved from September to an earlier date. She believes that would give middle-of-the-road candidates who have little shot at party endorsement a chance to mount a serious primary challenge and still have time to recover for November’s general election. Legislation she pushed that would have moved the primary to August was part of an election bill that was vetoed by Pawlenty.
So, her frustration remains. There’s little room for unconventional thinking in Minnesota politics, as evidenced by the stalemate between the governor and the DFL-controlled Legislature.
“Awful,” said Bonoff of the recently concluded session.
There already is a long line of candidates forming who want to be their party’s gubernatorial candidate. She believes that many in this crowd will please activists. But she also believes anybody who survives the endorsement process will do little to excite most Minnesota.
Thing is, Bonoff said, both parties have “clear-the-field candidates” who would appeal to that great mass of middle Minnesota.
“I’m not going to name names,” she said.
But candidates who would fit that “clear-the-field” standard include are 1st District Congressman Tim Walz, a moderate to conservative DFLer, and former 3rd District Congressman Jim Ramstad, a moderate, pro-choice Republican.
So hungry are DFLers for a win, that Walz probably could get the endorsement of his party. Remember, there’s a new generation of voters who weren’t even born when the last DFL governor, Rudy Perpich, left office in 1990, meaning DFLers shouldn’t just be hungry but, perhaps, even getting a little smarter.
To date, Walz has said he’s not interested in leaving the House to make a run for the mansion.
Political realities dampen interest of ‘centrists’
Former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, who eight years ago was the Independence Party gubernatorial candidate, believes he understands why Walz is reluctant. To end up on the ballot as the DFL gubernatorial candidate, Penny said, Walz would not only have to make it through a tough endorsement convention but also would likely find himself involved in a primary contest against such candidates as Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza, both classic liberals who are capable of self-financing massive campaigns.
“If you’re Tim Walz, you’ve got to think about all you’d be giving up (a seat in the House) and all you’d be putting yourself through,” said Penny.
Ramstad, Penny noted, has an even dicier problem. As popular as he’d likely be to most Minnesotans, he’d face “anybody but Ramstad” movements among thousands of Republican Party activists.
Ah, those activists: Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
It should be noted that it’s not the activists fault they’ve got so much clout. Democracy belongs to those who show up. Activists show up, typically because they believe so strongly in a set of principles that they are willing to sacrifice the immense amounts of time it takes to become a convention delegate.
Opat, who has contemplated making a run for governor, has a theory as to what’s happened in the DFL. The diminishing power of the old crafts unions, he believes, has taken away much of the party’s pragmatism. The old labor guard — not to be confused with such white-collar unions as the teachers’ union — were interested in work and winning.
“It’s not activists who are the problem,” he said. “It’s activists speaking [political] purity that’s the problem. … [In the DFL] the trades and crafts people — they hunt, they fish, they drive a pickup truck and aren’t afraid to admit it. They probably even have power lawnmowers and drink a Bud. The activists either grow their hops and make their own beer or have a micro-brew.”
Where the pro-choice, anti-pickup truck, pro-bicycle, anti-Wal-Mart purity hurts the DFL most, Opat said, is in the suburbs.
“And the election will be won or lost in the suburbs,” he said.
But Republican activists are a long way from the mainstream as well. The rise of the Ron Paul movement, mixed with the evangelicals, could make for an even- narrower Republican Party.
Ron Paul supporters emerging as potent force in GOP
To the surprise of many, the Paul movement didn’t fade away with the end of his 2008 presidential campaign. Hundreds of the Paulites have moved into the Republican Party and are determined to change it.
Who are these folks?
“Impossible to label,” said Marianne Stebbins, a leader of the Paul movement in Minnesota. “They won’t be speaking of one accord.”
Surprisingly, given their libertarian bent, many of the Paulites are fond of 6th District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, because of her anti-government, conservative fiscal views, although Stebbins admits that Bachmann’s strong social conservatism is a turnoff to a substantial number of Paulites.
What of businessman Brian Sullivan, who many see as among the early Republican front-runners if he chooses to enter the race.
Well, turns out there’s a problem among the Paul crowd with Sullivan. He’s a member of the Republican National Committee, and the Paul people are still angry over the lack of respect shown to their candidate by the party at the Republican National Convention.
“They haven’t forgotten,” said Stebbins.
How did Paulites see Pawlenty?
“A lot of people would have run against him if he’d have decided to go for a third term,” said Stebbins. “He signed the stadium bill, he supported light rail, he passed the health fee and, worst, he signed the mandatory seat belt bill. The seat belt bill is huge to a libertarian. Their view is that ‘I will care for my own well-being. I don’t need a handful of people in St. Paul telling me what I have to do.’ ”
OK, so now look at the dance you have to do if you’re a Republican gubernatorial candidate trying to get endorsement at your party’s convention. You’ll have to appeal to God-fearing, anti-abortion, no-new-taxes, anti-light-rail, no-seat-belt-bill delegates.
Oh yes, and when you’re done agreeing to all of this, you’ll have to appeal to the rest of us Minnesotans, too.
“I don’t know if either party will have delegates who are willing to say that electability is more important than purity,” said Weaver, who is spending the summer deciding whether he’ll toss his hat in the ring.
But, Weaver said, he believes “Republicans are acutely aware of what’s at stake.” The message that he hopes Republicans will carry to Minnesotans in the gubernatorial campaign is all about “balance.”
“You should hear a lot of talk about balance,” he said. “You have a DFL House, a DFL Senate, a DFL attorney general, a DFL secretary of state. … We need balance.”
Given the tendency of both parties to move toward the edges, there would seem to be at least a chance of the Independence Party coming up with a candidate who might appeal to the middle.
But, says Jack Uldrich, the IP chair, that’s easier to say than it is to accomplish. Pawlenty’s announcement that he won’t seek a third term did put some extra adrenaline into the IPs, who realize both parties could come up with candidates seen by extremists by most Minnesotans.
“We’d like to find someone who is well known and respected, has some cachet with the public and also has some resources,” said Uldrich. “If we can’t find someone with a traditional political background, we’d like to talk with a well-respected business leader or someone from the nonprofit sector. Or, we could look at elected officials from smaller offices.”
Uldrich said he’d love to have a conversation with Ramstad about running under the IP banner. And he’s still a big believer in Penny.
But as much as Penny believes in the importance of the third-party movement, he’s not ready to throw himself into another race.
“I’m glad the party’s there,” said Penny. “But any chance it has for success at this point is outside the control of the party. Success would depend on time and circumstance.”
At this point, no matter how far out of the mainstream candidates of the two traditional parties might be, Penny said, “there’s always a floor below which a DFLer or a Republican cannot fall. There are a certain percentage of DFLers who will vote for any old DFLer, just because it’s assumed that candidate is better than the Republican. It’s the same with Republicans.”
The IP floor is so low, it makes the uphill climb all the more difficult.
But can either party come up with a candidate acceptable to most Minnesotans?
“If you’re asking, ‘Can either party field a candidate who can win more than 50 percent of the votes?’ the answer is probably no,” said Penny. ” But we now know that 42 percent plus 312 votes is electable.”
Good point. Our unending Senate race is proof you don’t have to nominate a winner. You just need to find a lesser loser.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.