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Can either party endorse a candidate for governor who will appeal to mainstream Minnesota?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Both the DFL and GOP face internal problems in endorsing a mainstream nominee to succeed Gov. Tim Pawlenty, shown addressing the media during the last days of the legislative session.

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.

Sen. Terri Bonoff
Sen. Terri Bonoff

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.

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz

“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.”

Former Rep. Jim Ramstad
Former Rep. Jim Ramstad

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.

Brian Sullivan
Brian Sullivan

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.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/04/2009 - 10:25 am.

    Moderates sometimes strike me as well-meaning and pragmatic, but more often as wishy-washy and pandering. How could you spend years in politics and develop strong views about what the best course of action forward is? Moderates did not end slavery, moderates did not make the civil rights movement happen, moderates didn’t constitute the environmental movement, moderates didn’t make women human beings in the eyes of the law, moderates don’t push for the protection of gays, and moderates didn’t extract us from the great depression. All of these things were the work of passionate individuals with big ideas who moderates would deride as “extremists”. The middle position staked out by these candidates is rather arbitrary anyways; there’s little inherit truth to taking the average position of the American population at some random point in time. Truth is discovered through intellectual exploration.

    I’m not convinced you need to be moderate to appeal to the majority of Minnesota. You can also do it by being passionate and good. It worked for Paul Wellstone.

  2. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 06/04/2009 - 10:43 am.

    I really have to disagree with Opat’s statement that it is the diminishing influence of the trades that has lead to unelectable candidates. In fact in both 2002 and 2006 it was union support that pushed Roger Moe over Judy Dutcher and Mike Hatch over Steve Kelley for the DFL endorsement. In my opinion Both Dutcher and Kelley would have fared much better over Tim Pawlenty and probably would have won either election.

    Go back to coverage of both endorsing conventions, it was the labor support (I think specifically the plumbers) that were instrumental in getting the last 2 DFL candidates for Governor endorsed.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/04/2009 - 11:06 am.

    I fail to see the wisdom of expecting both parties to produce the same candidate (moderate). As Jim Hightower has said: “The only thing in the middle of the road is yellow lines and dead armadillos”. Middlism renders the whole point of having more than one party incoherent.

    I for one am not looking for two identical candidates from different parties. Moderate = mediocre and I’ve had enough of mediocre candidates. If there’s no difference between the Rep and the Dem, I’ll not vote for either one. Guess what, people like me pushed Franken and Obama over the top; and we didn’t vote for either of them because they were moderates.

    The Democrats in particular seem to have difficulty with notion that they’re supposed to be a liberal party instead of a moderate wing of the Republican party.

    We have serious problems in this state and country. In fact, with the exception of the cold war, we are still facing all the issues we were facing when I graduated from High School in 1981, the only differnce is the problem are larger. We need vision, courage, and leadership,we’re not going to get that from a moderate. So why would anyone worry about whether or not the parties can produce moderate candidates? You don’t have to be moderate to win, especially in MN.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/04/2009 - 11:15 am.

    I don’t think many of the Democrats mentioned are all that liberal. In fact, I would argue that the fact that the DFL has dominated the past few elections so much is because we have moderate candidates. Tim Walz is a moderate. Amy Klobuchar is fairly moderate. El Tinklenberg is A LOT closer to the center than Michele Bachmann. Al Franken is more moderate that he is made out to be in the press. He goes on USO tours and got beat up by DFL activists for not supporting only a single-payer health care system. Mike Hatch was closer to the center than Pawlenty. At the state legislative level, there were no huge tax increases proposed by Democrats. The approach they brought forward in 2008 was a lot more middle-of-the-road that Pawlenty’s No New Taxes pledge and his go-it-alone attitude. Does Matt Entenza really come across as that flaming liberal? Or Tom Bakk?

    If you could map the political leanings of all the people in the state and then find the center, you would find A LOT more Democrats there than you would Republicans.

    Frankly, I think the much of the Minnesota media has lost their “moderate” compass and don’t know when they’ve arrived at it.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 06/04/2009 - 11:26 am.

    Great story and good comments so far. The only comment I would make is to Mr. Klein re his statement about moderates not ending slavery. In fact Abraham Lincoln was a moderate and ended slavery. I just returned from the Lincoln bicentiennial conference that had noted historians Harold Holzer and Richard Norton Smith and others. They were all pretty united in pointing out that Lincoln was a moderate whose success was using his excellent political skills to solve problems. Lincoln’s move towards ending slavery came because of his realization that the union could not be “a divided house”not because he was passionate about ending slavery. Moderates are who write the laws and solve the problems. I’d be careful to criticize them and more careful not to support them.

  6. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 06/04/2009 - 01:24 pm.

    Good story and good comments from some key players but as usual Minnesota politics plods onward to the political Nether world! BUT, where are the true and stalwart leaders?

    What do you do with a state political climate and situation that is so messed-up and so convoluted that it crashes a main frame software research program keeping track of the MN political scene?

    Minnesota is ‘allegedly’ a three political party state but the defining principles of said three parties seemed blurred in the rig-a-ma-roll of shallow political vision, inane pettiness, no set principles, and everyone trying to appease the electorate.

    As of this comment, news sources have revealed 25 possible candidates pondering, starting electioneering, and just feeling out the MN electorate for the governor’s office. No one stands above this melee as a true and real political visionary to lead and develop MN for the state it potentially can be.

    Governor Pawlenty is a nice affable type fellow I could have a beer with, fish with, and just plain talk about the daily Chinese bulk commodity tea prices but visionary political discourse would not be on the agenda.

    Why? Because the governor’s meaning of being a Republican would be the modern discordant and milquetoast definition that plagues all parties, today. You can’t run a political party with middle of the road[MOR]; not true moderate(!); conventional principles of the competing parties and stay true to your founding original party precepts.

    The present primary system in the state is a shambles and useless! The party endorsement process is a joke when outspoken candidates by-pass its regimen. The three parties have no defining political ideologies that are really stalwart or attainable.

    In the endorsement arena, party candidates lack the true fire, passion, vision, or true political marketability to enfranchise voters and solidly attain office.

    Also, for the gubernatorial contest, there is no prospective candidate with the excitement and vision to demonstrate how MN can be a fiscally strong, characteristically solid, and truly historically visionary for the complex future ahead.

    In other words, there are no true leaders, at this time, to lead this state!!!

    This disheartened citizen would like answers.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/04/2009 - 02:14 pm.

    A couple comments on this statement:
    “The rise of the Ron Paul movement, mixed with the evangelicals, could make for an even- narrower Republican Party.”

    It’s not the “Ron Paul movement”, it is the return to the idea of limited federal government and personal responsibility. Please read the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

    I don’t know about the evangelicals, but I do know the Ron Paul supporters are some of the most diverse in age, experience, and gender that I have ever seen. It appears Ron Paul’s message of freedom and liberty is inclusive and attracts many people from across the spectrum.

  8. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/04/2009 - 03:15 pm.

    You’re basically talking about identity politics which seems to continue to grow. The early cold war years of consensus are long gone. It does seem in the primaries that “regular folks” (whatever that means, probably the unorganized are by default not recognized). I also think although it seems to be rarely written about that Minnesotans have very different expectations of their governor vs. their senators.

  9. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 06/04/2009 - 04:36 pm.

    Come on Doug. The GOP has more litmus tests than one can count, and Pawlenty passed them as necessary, but didn’t run on the far-right platform. Instead he had help from the former VP and thre national party and kept his plans and prejudices under wraps.

    The DFL did fratricide, as if Skip Humphrey was more moderate than Mike Freeman or Mike Hatch more moderate than anyone. Anyone will be more moderate than Michelle Bachman or a host of possible GOP candidates.

  10. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/04/2009 - 04:56 pm.

    Doug, thank you for that line about “Democracy belongs to those who show up.” I’m one of those who shows up, and I agree with the commenters who find the core idea that activists pick the wrong candidates to be questionable. The people who get involved in the endorsement and primaries aren’t interest groups. We’re individuals, and we vote for who we agree with most. What are we supposed to do, try to read the minds of people who don’t show up?

    Besides, the candidates I support do pretty well at winning the general election, which makes me question the premise again.

    If Opat doesn’t know why he has trouble winning, it might have something to do that interest groups line. I think this quote tells it all: “The activists either grow their hops and make their own beer or have a micro-brew.” Opat is criticizing people he knows nothing about.

  11. Submitted by John Olson on 06/04/2009 - 05:57 pm.

    Just what is “mainstream Minnesota” in 2009 anyway?

  12. Submitted by Eva Young on 06/04/2009 - 11:14 pm.

    Mike Opat is hardly one to talk. As Hennepin County Commissioner, he chose to spend his time and political capital on increasing Henn County Taxes to pay for a Twins Stadium (and let Carl Pohlad laugh all the way to the bank).

    I second Dean Carlson’s point about the “crafts unions.”

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/05/2009 - 01:00 am.

    I guess I became an “activist” five years ago, when I became sufficiently fed up with the status quo to start knocking on doors to get a few new people elected, and went on to be among the few engaged enough to attend caucuses and so forth to choose candidates.

    But I don’t recognize the activists Opat discusses. “Electability” is invoked incessantly, in my experience. In 2004, the main reason I heard cited to choose Kerry in the primary was that he was assumed to be most electable. Hatch was supposed to be the electable candidate. Many of my friends supported Al Franken on the grounds that the other candidates “couldn’t win”.

    In short, electability is an enormously popular standard when people choose candidates to support. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to apply. Adequate polling data doesn’t exist prior to a candidate’s selection. So one is left primarily guessing how people with different world views will react to a candidate. Not surprisingly, this is not something anyone does well—“activist” or journalist.

    Moreover, by choosing a candidate and message based primarily on this sort of projection, we immediately give up authenticity and believability. Voters aren’t stupid. They recognize when messages are being crafted to suit what they want to hear, rather than what candidates really believe. Why vote for someone who doesn’t trust you enough to say what he really thinks?

    Ironically, I think Mike Opat was much closer to the truth in his recent Op Ed article, in which he criticized the Legislature for being unwilling to muster real leadership to fight for needed revenue changes. Leadership, conviction, and authenticity are really important aspects of electability, and I wish they were easier to identify in the DFL. That Op Ed article would have been a lot more useful back in January, though.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2009 - 08:08 am.

    Yeah, Opat’s not big on Democracy, he engineered one of the biggest violations of public trust in this states history (Twins stadium). That was a back door, under the table, behind the backs welfare program for a billionaire. If you think he’s interested in finding candidates that will represent the people you should visit the downtown Salvation Army… literally in the shadow of the new stadium.

  15. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/05/2009 - 09:06 am.

    “Can either party endorse a candidate for governor who will appeal to mainstream Minnesota?”

    Mr. Grow – How in the world would you know (mainstream)?

  16. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 06/05/2009 - 10:31 am.

    This article is so wrong from so many angles.

    First of all, it assumes that people only vote on a false scale of conservative to moderate to liberal. Any look at Minnesota voting shows that to be plainly wrong. Remember we had Wellstone, Dayton, and Coleman for senators, almost at the same time. There was a time that people joked about our senators’ votes canceling each other out on votes. Given the high numbers of cross over voting, it is very obvious that really that line does not exist. People vote for more complicated reasons.

    This article assumes that Waltz won’t run because of competition or chances. I heard from a fair number of trusted sources that Waltz truly wants family time, and I believe that. Because as one of those voting “insiders”, I think Waltz would automatically be a front runner if not the candidate to beat, given that he announced early.

    Sen. Terri Bonoff is wonderful person and candidate, however the concerns about her centering primarily on her ability to speak well and run a strong campaign, especially in comparison to other candidates.

    So this article instead of finding out what is REALLY going on, is repeating tired old themes that are basically misleading.

  17. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 06/05/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    Love the photo. Is this when Pawlenty was asked that question we were all hoping he’d be asked: How small is it, Tim?

  18. Submitted by Jill Trescott on 06/05/2009 - 04:27 pm.

    What would happen if Jim Ramstad ran as Democrat?

  19. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 06/05/2009 - 05:56 pm.

    Paul Udstrand wrote:

    biggest violations of public trust in this states history (Twins stadium). That was a back door, under the table, behind the backs welfare program for a billionaire.

    Huh? Can you name another piece of legislation passed and signed by the Governor that got as much public attention as the ballpark finance bill?

    Be against the ballpark, the money the Pohlad’s will make, whatever, but no one with a straight face can say it happened in a back door, under the table manner.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/08/2009 - 09:42 am.

    //Huh? Can you name another piece of legislation passed and signed by the Governor that got as much public attention as the ballpark finance bill?

    Opat designed the bill that set aside the Hennepin county law that required a referendum. He did this in secret meetings with Twins, Other members of the Henn Co. board didn’t even know these meetings had taken place until Opat et al announced the plan. As a result of Opat’s efforts we have a 500 million dollar welfare program for a billionaire that is on track and fully funded while at the same time Henn Co. Medical Center is laying off medical staff and reducing services for lack of money. Opat was supposed to represent the people of Henn Co, not disenfranchise them. And yes, he got elected, but we all know that people know as much or less about Henn Co. board members than they do about Judges.

  21. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 06/10/2009 - 02:41 pm.

    Thanks Mr. Grow. I’m having my ‘Lesser Loser’ T-shirts, stickers, and lawn signs made up tomorrow so I’ll be ready to be a good campaign volunteer this summer.

    I haven’t yet decided whom to support since I haven’t talked with all 25 potential candidates. So I’m showing up at opportunities to interact with candidates so that I can make an informed decision.

    Yes, indeed, “Democracy belongs to those who show up.”

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