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In Minnesota’s governor’s race, history tells us to expect the unexpected

Last week’s news about Gov. Tim Pawlenty not running for re-election broke on Twitter, of course, because that’s where an increasing amount of political news and insider gossip is showing up these days.  By most accounts, WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler (@PatKessler) broke the story.

It’s an appropriate sign of the times, because the 2010 governor’s race is shaping up as Minnesota’s first political campaign to play out in the era of full-time social media. Already, the campaign’s political developments are playing out daily through nearly constant tips, posts and status updates on such social media as Twitter and Facebook.

On Wednesday, for example, many of the Tweets focused on the campaigns of Republicans Laura Brod and Bill Haas. Meanwhile, an invite to a fundraiser for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak hosted by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in St. Paul — two frequently mentioned potential candidates for governor — prompted blog posts and speculation.

All of this armchair punditry about both DFL and GOP candidates will proliferate exponentially in the coming weeks and months. So, get ready for a prolonged onslaught because the election is still 17 months away. 

The race already has prompted Twitter chatter and Facebook organizing that will continue at a fevered pace. Even with all the candidate activity, it’s important, though, to think about some other key factors likely to affect the 2010 governor’s race.

Since 1990, our races for governor rarely have been boring and, with the exception of the Arne Carlson-John Marty race in 1994, usually have come down to the wire. Here are four factors to keep top of mind as we watch this political road rally:

Third-party influence
Since 1998, the Independence Party has had a significant impact on the final results of our gubernatorial races. Gov. Jesse Ventura’s 1998 victory, of course, was the party’s peak performance, but the candidacies of Tim Penny in 2002 and Peter Hutchinson in 2006 also affected those races.  Penny pulled 16.1 percent of the vote, and Hutchinson 6.4 percent.

DFLers grumble that the IP candidates’ vote totals were a major factor in their nominees losing those races. The IP will have major-party status again in 2010, thanks to former Sen. Dean Barkley getting 15 percent in last year’s three-way Senate race.

Other third-party factors could be the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. Each has had moments of influence but not in the last two elections. The more likely of the two to wield influence this time is the Libertarian Party because of the polarization within the Republican Party. If the Ron Paul faction is dissatisfied with the way it’s treated by Republicans or is unhappy with the GOP-endorsed candidate, supporters could either challenge the nominee in a primary or field a legitimate candidate as a Libertarian. 

Money and political fundraising
Historically, Minnesota governor’s races have been relatively cash-light. Our public financing system generally has provided sufficient funds for candidates to run a solid race.  Next year, that may all change.

On the DFL side, there are two candidates likely to spend personal wealth if they end up running in a primary: former Sen. Mark Dayton and former state Rep. Matt Entenza. The political buzz is that Entenza is quietly telling people that he is willing to spend $10 million or more. In 2000, Dayton spent $11 million to win his U.S. Senate seat.

In 2006, spending limits for candidates who took public money were only $2.3 million, prompting Pawlenty to opt out. This time around, it is even less likely that many will abide by public financing limits. On the GOP side, successful businessman Brian Sullivan likely could compete with those types of personal campaign bankrolling — and he may need to for a contentious GOP battle.

Major primary battles
Big money will increase the likelihood of highly contentious primaries. Party activists, especially in the DFL, are less likely to endorse someone who is spending his own wealth to fund his campaign. On the other hand, someone spending his own wealth is less likely to abide by party endorsement.

The last contentious party primary for governor occurred in 1998, when former Attorney General Skip Humphrey emerged from a crowded, high-powered DFL field that included Dayton, former state Sen. Ted Mondale, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, and former state Sen. Doug Johnson.

On the GOP side, activists in 1994 expected a contentious race between Gov. Arne Carlson and Allen Quist, but it proved not to be. In 1990, Carlson lost the primary to Jon Grunseth in a three-way race that included Doug Kelley, now the trustee in the Tom Petters bankruptcy case.

The unpredictable
Since 1990, every governor’s race has included some piece of drama that few could predict. Much like the weather in Minnesota, there’s sure to be some surprise. We’re just not sure what it will be or when and where it will hit.

For those who need reminders, here’s a history refresher:

1990 — The Grunseth pool scandal and the late entry of Arne Carlson when he was added to the general election ballot.

1994 — John Marty’s multiple campaign managers and lack of money for a DFL-endorsed candidate.

1998 — Jesse Ventura and his creative campaign and final surge.

2002 — The political fallout from the Wellstone plane crash and Pawlenty’s major campaign fine.

2006 — The E85 gaffe by Judi Dutcher, DFL candidate for lieutenant governor, and the resulting Hatch temper tantrum.

So, as we all speculate and pontificate about the who’s and what-ifs, we can pretty well count on some outside factor influencing the way the campaign unfolds. This time around, we’ll all get a real-time history lesson as social media sites document the campaign minute by minute.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 06/11/2009 - 12:56 pm.

    Aren’t political parties supposed to be like a team? Most teams function better when there is some leadership that can make some decisions about who should be playing quarterback?

    I can understand some factions within parties having their favorite candidate, but when the dozen self-appointed candidates get in the room together, don’t they feel a bit ridiculous. Can’t two-thirds of them step back and yield to people who have exactly the same views and better qualifications and candidate appeal?

    I can suggest one easy filter – if you have run for governor before and lost, chances are there was a reason – get out of the race.

    Here is another one – if you were sitting in the chair in front of the room at the legislature or making pointless amendments in the last 30 minutes of the legislature, get out of the race. You do not want to see the YOUTUBE video of that condensed into 30 second TV spots.

    With these simple measures, we would cut the candidate field in half and eliminated many who let rigid idealogy get in the way of quality decisionmaking.

    Don’t twitter me, don’t email me, don’t ask me for money till some party leadership is exercised.

    I look forward to hearing from you at the 2010 State Fair!

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/11/2009 - 11:03 pm.

    Only a few will have access to the kind financial backing that will be required to make a serious run in the governor race.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/13/2009 - 11:19 am.

    Entenza’s problem is that the more money he spends, the more focus there will be on where he got it.

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