Late last week, former 3rd District Congressman Jim Ramstad publicly floated the notion that he might consider running for governor.
On the surface, Ramstad’s “might run” sentiment instantly seemed to move him to the front of the Repulican and DFL packs of mostly unknown candidates. After all, he’s one of the last of an old breed, a moderate Republican who “is interested in what’s going on in the boardroom, not the bedroom,” in the words of former Gov. Arne Carlson, who is ready to leap on the Ramstad bandwagon.
But Carlson is the first to admit that Ramstad’s road to the governor’s office would not be easy, despite the congressman’s record of bipartisanship and nine successive victories in his suburban Minneapolis district before deciding to retire after last session.
A winner from the suburbs. What more could Republicans ask for?
Ramstad is squishy on social issues — notably abortion rights and gay rights — that are near and dear to the hearts of a big chunk of party activists. And he almost certainly would not tie his hands by signing the no-new-taxes pledge that Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed six years ago in proving to small-government conservatives he was one of them.
Virtually no chance of GOP endorsement
Carlson says there is virtually no chance that Ramstad could win party endorsement. Two conservative candidates — Rep. Paul Kohls, who already is officially in the race, and Rep. Marty Seifert, who will officially declare his entrance into the race next week — agree with Carlson’s assessment.
That means Ramstad would have to go through a primary to end up on the ballot in 2010.
For his part, the former congressman suddenly finds himself spending virtually all of his time with his 87-year-old father, who has turned gravely ill.
“Nothing could be farther from my mind than politics,” Ramstad said, his voice filled with emotion Monday morning.
His personal life understandably is his No. 1 priority now. But last week’s comments that he might consider a run for governor already have changed the look of a long, long gubernatorial race that will be filled with people getting in, getting out, rising and falling. He is THE NAME at the edges of a crowded Republican field. But politically, he is the man in the middle, much as Carlson was. Remember this: Carlson was the last governor to win a majority of Minnesota votes.
“The DFL is still toothless tigers saying the same things they’ve always said,” said Carlson. “And the Republicans have never stopped moving farther to the right. We now have Michele Bachmann, for heaven’s sakes. We’re not learning much, but they aren’t either. There is tremendous opportunity for a middle-of-the-road candidate.”
Pros and cons
So why wouldn’t Ramstad run — and win?
For starters, he’s already said he’s not sure he wants to give up the “normal” life he’s found outside of politics.
Beyond that, being rejected by one’s own party is not easy to take politically or personally.
There are no guarantees that Ramstad could win a primary “because a well-organized minority usually beats a disorganized majority,” Carlson said. He would have to attract DFLers and Independents to vote in the Republican primary to win.
And no one knows better than Carlson how personal politics can become. One of his lasting memories is stepping to the podium to speak to GOP delegates at the 1994 state convention.
“The delegates stood and turned their backs,” said Carlson.
Remember, Carlson was the incumbent governor at the time.
Prior to that, Carlson had been booed heartily by his fellow Republicans when he’d given a speech in St. Cloud in support of human rights for all, including gays.
“Booed off the stage,” he recalled. “This was the state that celebrated Hubert Humphrey for standing up for human rights.”
Carlson said he wasn’t so much disappointed by those who booed him in St. Cloud and turned their backs on him at the party convention. “I almost expected it,” he said. “They at least were being up front.”
What disappointed Carlson most was the performance of the media.
“They treated me like I was a third-class citizen,” said Carlson of reporters. “They focused on the politics of the problems I had with the party. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ Not on the substance of what I stood for.”
In his mind, the media has shown the same “lack of responsibility” in dealing with Pawlenty. The focus is on Pawlenty’s political success, not the fiscal mess that the state is in.
“In two years,” Carlson said, “the deficit could be as high as $7 billion. But I don’t read stories about that. All Pawlenty has done is kick the can down the road. No problems have been solved. It’s as if he’s saying he’s found a cure for cancer by denying that there is any cancer.”
A hard message to sell?
To succeed, Carlson said, Ramstad would have to take a hard message to the people of the state by calling for more austerity from state government, and almost certainly tax increases as well.
He thinks Minnesotans always have been ready to support politicians who approach them honestly.
“It was true when I ran, and I think it’s true today,” Carlson said, “that the electorate is light years ahead of the media and the political system.”
But Ramstad, Carlson said, “would have to be feisty and very well organized. He’d have to deliver a message that’s tough but bipartisan. If the other two sides just keep sloganeering, they lose to that sort of message coming from somebody like Jim.”
Seifert, the Marshall Republican who stepped down as House minority leader to “explore” getting into the governor’s race, is nearly done exploring. He will announce his candidacy next Tuesday at Micro Control Co. in Fridley.
The site is symbolic, Seifert said, because the issue in the campaign is going to be job creation, and the best way to help create jobs in Minnesota “is through tax breaks and re-investment incentives” for business.
Though not well known among the population as a whole, Seifert said he is well known among party people across the state because of his years as minority leader. His fundraising and support among activists has been strong, Seifert said.
What of the shadow of Ramstad?
“He was a fantastic public servant,” said Seifert, “but at the end of the day, I don’t think he’ll get in the race.”
Kohls, from Victoria, this week took a leave of absence from his position as an attorney and manager at Allianz Life so he can focus full time on his gubernatorial bid. He said he isn’t going to spend time wondering about what Ramstad, or any other candidates, might do.
“It’s a long, slow process,” said Kohls.
Ultimately, most of the candidates who stand before the Republican delegates essentially will offer the same conservative message, he said. The endorsement winner will be the person who is able to best convince the delegates that he or she can best carry the conservative message to the rest of Minnesota.
For now, name recognition means little, Kohls said. For the present, the race is played out, phone call by phone call, to the 2,000 people who likely will be convention delegates.
“It’s a cliché but it’s true,” said Kohls. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. How often does the person who is first out of the starting blocks come out the winner?”
It’s not who has the big name now, Kohls said. It’s who has the big name about 14 months from now.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.