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Can the DFL break its long losing streak in Minnesota governor’s race?

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Almost certain to build her campaign around her political experience and her Minnesota roots, Margaret Anderson Kelliher today officially joins the large field of DFLers seeking to become her party’s first governor since Rudy Perpich left office on Jan. 7, 1991.

Given the fact that Kelliher has been announcing that she’d be announcing her candidacy “soon,” today’s formal announcement cannot exactly be called dramatic.

But given her experience, the speaker of the House from south Minneapolis instantly becomes one of the party’s front-runners.

Big and diverse DFL field shaping up
Two more relatively big names — Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman — are expected to get into a race that now includes nine DFL candidates who come from all parts of the state and most parts of the political spectrum.

There are two women, Kelliher and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. There’s Sen. John Marty, who tried once before to become governor, from the left, along with former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. There are two candidates from the north country, Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and colorful Rep. Tom Rukavina from Virginia. And from the metro area, there are Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and former legislators Matt Entenza of St. Paul and Steve Kelley of Hopkins.

They all will be doing battle with each other, but their bigger foe is history. The constant among DFL gubernatorial candidates going back to Perpich is this: They all lose.

It is pretty stunning when you think about this losing streak.

When the DFLers last had a governor, the Hiawatha Light Rail line was still nine years from the start of construction. The University of Minnesota was in the process of conducting a search for a football coach, which ended up being Jim Wacker. (“My heart is pumping and my corpuscles are jumping and it really is a wonderful time,” said Wacker, in 1991, when he was hired. Five years later, he was fired after his teams compiled a 16-39 record.)

When the DFL last had someone living in the governor’s mansion, the Cooper Theater in St. Louis Park was running its last picture show, “Dances With Wolves.” Tim Pawlenty was a rookie member of the Eagan City Council, and Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

Over the years, the DFLers have lost twice to a Republican despised by his base, Arne Carlson. They’ve lost to a pro wrestler. And twice to Pawlenty.

A long losing streak in a blue state
They’ve managed to do all this losing in what most still consider a “blue state.” Other than in the last race, when the Democrats rolled nationally and statewide, many of the races haven’t even been close. In 1990, Perpich lost to Carlson 50 percent to 47 percent. In 1994, Carlson crushed Marty, 63 to 34. In 1998, Skip Humphrey finished third with 28 percent of the vote, trailing winner Jesse Ventura (37 percent) and Norm Coleman (34 percent). In 2002, Roger Moe finished with 39.5 percent to Pawlenty’s 44.4 percent and the Independence Party’s Tim Penny picking up 16.1 percent. In 2006, Pawlenty squeaked past Hatch, 46.7 percent to 45.7 percent with the IP’s Peter Hutchinson receiving 6.4 percent.

If there is an almost-constant in these constant losses, it might be the rise of the Independence Party movement.

In 1992, an unknown, Dean Barkley, ran a credible 6th District congressional race, picking up 20 percent of the vote in the year of Ross Perot. Barkley’s performance likely opened the door for Republican Rod Grams’ win over incumbent Gerry Sikorski, and it gave life to a movement.

Ever since, DFLers have believed that the IP efforts take more votes from them in gubernatorial races than from Republicans, although Barkley doesn’t buy the theory.

“We take from both sides,” said Barkley in an interview Tuesday. “They have won statewide races with Klobuchar and Franken. I think their problem is that they just haven’t run very good candidates.”

There will be an IP candidate on the ballot 14 months from now, Barkley predicted, adding that he just might be that candidate.

“We’ll beat the bushes to find someone,” he said.

Barkley hints at an Independence Party run
Could it be Dean Barkley?

“It looks pretty damned inviting,” he said, noting that it was he and Penny who put together the Ventura administration that receives high marks for competence.

Barkley believes that the DFL problem is that it keeps running candidates who are to the left of most Minnesotans. Kelliher, he said, fits that “too left” mold.

“I don’t think she can win,” he said. “A liberal woman from south Minneapolis can’t sell outstate. She’ll do good in the 5th and 4th [congressional] districts, but you have to remember there are eight districts in the state.”

Kelliher, of course, is positioning herself as a moderate leader, who grew up on a farm near Mankato.

As he surveys the field, Barkley is most impressed by Bakk and Entenza.

“Bakk’s a middle-of-the-road guy,” said Barkley, “but I don’t think he can get endorsed. Entenza’s got resources. He might pull it off.”

It would appear that Entenza is in the top-tier group of candidates. He’s already hired a very experienced campaign staff, and he’s making it clear that even though he’ll seek the party’s endorsement, he’ll head to a primary if he doesn’t receive it.

“The last time a non-incumbent endorsed [DFL] candidate won was 40 years ago,” said Entenza, pointing to Wendell Anderson’s victory in 1970.

A coherent message?
Since Perpich, Entenza said, DFL gubernatorial candidates have struggled with a message.

“For most of the last 20 years, I think the DFL has not had a coherent message,” said Entenza. “We sound like we’re at a smorgasbord and we love every item. I think the public has seen the Republicans have had a coherent message. The only way to win is to have a clear, concise message and a clear set of priorities.”

The race for governor, Entenza said, is different from a race for the U.S. Senate, statewide contests that have brought the DFL far more success.

“When you’re voting for a senator, you’re voting for an advocate,” Entenza said. “Governor is different. People need a clear message.”

For the record, Entenza’s message is: “Making Minnesota work again; we have to make Minnesota the Silicon Valley of clean energy.”

Of course, each of the campaigns will have a “vision.” Most of the campaigns, to date, are focusing on the idea that winning in the DFL strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Iron Range no longer gets it done.

And each of the candidates will claim he or she is the one that can end a losing streak that now stretches nearly a generation.

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

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/16/2009 - 11:18 am.

    Matt Entenza, for a number of reasons, is widely despised within the DFL establishment but he has all the money in the world and as long as he doesn’t screw up, something he didn’t manage earlier in his career, he should win the DFL primary easily.

    As a general election candidate he is attractive, and can out spend the Republicans simply by writing a check. But there is always the however. Matt’s an extremely smart guy, but he lacks political skills, and he is afflicted with extremely poor political judgment. It’s a lot easier to lose a race than win a race, and losing races is something Matt’s good at.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/16/2009 - 11:19 am.

    When the I35 bridge collapsed, a Republican relative from out of state wanted to point to the rule of the Dems in our state. She was shocked and didn’t know who to blame when I told her that we hadn’t had a Dem in the governor’s office for years.

    When Mike Hatch was running for the Dem endorsement for governor, I fought in my caucus to keep him off the ticket because too many of the Independents I knew couldn’t stand him. But he was greeted by my local party members at the caucus as the conquering hero.

    We have to listen to the I’s whose votes are up for grabs.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/16/2009 - 12:04 pm.

    As usual, the Independence party is the joker.
    Without them the DFL would have controlled the statehouse for the past two decades.

  4. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 09/16/2009 - 12:05 pm.

    Until the Democrats, especially all the gubernatorial candidates, get together under one roof[behind closed doors] and hash out all their differences and views there will never be a united Democratic Party in Minnesota.

    How can any Minnesotan understand, vote for, or agree with the MN Democratic party when this party is so factionalized? It’s that simple; you don’t need a study or town meeting to figure this out.

    In other words, [Democrats] quit your belly aching, bury your political hatchets, and unite for Minnesotans who want change! The good decent Minnesota folks will tell you what they desire if you only listen.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/16/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    Barkley is correct; the DFL has nominated a bunch of zeroes for governor. Marcia makes the same point – the DFL is apparently neither aware nor concerned with the independant voters. The DFL record with the governorship reflects the sense of that strategy.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/16/2009 - 01:05 pm.

    Although I haven’t studied all the minutia of IRV and perhaps am unaware of the pro and cons of that system. I have to wonder if IRV wouldn’t solve the issue of a third party candidate.

  7. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 09/16/2009 - 02:49 pm.

    Well Doug, I think you missed the main reason the DFL gubernatorial candidates haven’t won.

    Mean-spirited primaries, some based on personalities or grudges, weakened the DFL Primary winners. In the general elections, the candidates thought it necessary to pull their punches and center their campaigns. Courting IP and IR voters rather than the large number of DFL voters who had favored an endorsed candidate or a more progressive platform in the primary.

    It can happen again: Nine or ten candidates will do a lot of bad-mouthing directly. Some will sit on the sidelines when some fundamentalist, anti-choice, or smokers’ rights nut attacks one of the others.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/16/2009 - 04:27 pm.

    Whoever the DFL nominate, they will have the same worn-out message: tax more and spend more. They will also need to use the same code words for raising taxes by saying more “investment” is needed for the biggest DFL special interest group – union education.

    The DFL goal is to find the candidate who will best “cover-up” the tax and spend message.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/16/2009 - 04:30 pm.

    I think it’s really hard to generalize why Democrats lose governor’s races without thinking about each one individually. Only after that, can we find a common theme if indeed there is one.

  10. Submitted by Tim Nelson on 09/16/2009 - 04:35 pm.

    I’ll vote for the most centrist. If the DFL can pull that off, good for them.

  11. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/16/2009 - 05:10 pm.

    Such encouraging comments I think I’ll go squirrel hunting instead.

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/16/2009 - 06:32 pm.

    Yes, IRV would reduce the effect of third party candidates.
    If no candidate got a majority, votes for the candidates would be redistributed to their second choices, starting with the candidates getting the fewest votes.
    So, if the GOP candidate got the most votes in the first round, but not a majority, and
    if most of the 3 – X candidates voters preferred the DFL candidate to the GOP one, then the DFL candidate would win by being acceptable to the greatest number of voters.
    Jesse might still have been elected if most DFL and GOP voters listed him as their second choice.

  13. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 09/16/2009 - 06:39 pm.

    The long shadow of the Republican National Convention (a.k.a. the Siege of St Paul) darkens the prospects of three DFL candidates mentioned. Susan Gaertner continues to chase baseless charges against the RNC-8, while failing completely to check out hard evidence of police crimes during the convention. R.T. is on record as completely neutral on the question of police intimidation and misconduct, while crowing about how much money Minneapolis made (reminding me a bit of China’s style of capitalism). Chris Coleman sounds like Goldilocks when he proclaims that the degree of police was “just right” — which flies in the face of any first-hand observations by anyone who was there.

    We never can find a perfect candidate, of course. But how can we forgive these so-called leaders who have sold our freedoms so cheaply. Especially when they have continued to justify the oppression and when they have never asked for forgiveness.

  14. Submitted by Bruce Anderson on 09/16/2009 - 11:14 pm.

    Instead of the DFL constantly whining and blaming the IP over losing state wide three-way races perhaps some DFL candiates should ask Franken, Kloby, Richie, Otto, and Swanson about the secret sauce.

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/17/2009 - 08:06 am.

    I don’t think anyone takes the mayoral candidates seriously in terms of winning the nomination. I think they are their to make sure their issues are heard.

  16. Submitted by David Joseph De Grio on 09/17/2009 - 10:23 am.

    I was a big supporter of the IP from the age of 16-27 and recently started working with the DFL. I am currently on the Stonewall Board. I came over to work with the DFL because I see some new leaders emerging at the local level, who I think would make fine state leaders. With that said, I will not support an ‘establishment’ candidate like Entenza, Dayton or Kelliher. I think that the first two need to go quietly into the night with their baggage and I think that Kelliher showed her complete inability to lead during the last legislative session. There is at least one candidate, Paul Thissen, who can appeal to many independents. He’s rather pragmatic, not logged down with a history of partisan politics and is a genuinely nice guy.

    The IP is not a “joker” or “spoiler” party. Many people see the IP candidates as the only person they actually want to vote for and I am happy that they are here in our state to continue to affect the discussion at election times. I doubt they’ll win anything big, in the near future, but both the DFL and the GOP need to continue to worry about the IP’s presence. Case in point, the CD6 race against Michele Bachmann. Independents want her gone, but they are not willing to vote for a party-line DFLer. The CD6 DFL needs to look for a candidate that can attract Independents. Here’s a hint: independents are more concerned with fiscal/spending issues than they are with social issues (especially gay civil marriage.)

  17. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/17/2009 - 03:13 pm.

    “Case in point, the CD6 race against Michele Bachmann. Independents want her gone, but they are not willing to vote for a party-line DFLer.”

    That’s the problem, isn’t it? The Independence Party is mostly just a vehicle for indecision. For myself, I could only wish the DFL were coherent enough to have a party line.

  18. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/17/2009 - 03:37 pm.

    Yes, if one can accurately accuse the DFL of not having a coherent platform, that’s even more true of the IP. It seems to be the “none-of-the-above” option.

    What I want to see in the next DFL gubernatorial candidate is a set of strong positions and a knack for relating to the voters and explaining his/her positions to different constituencies.

    It has been my experience that average voters (the kinds who ignore politics except when there’s a major election coming up) base their vote entirely on whether they “like” the candidate. They love vivid personalities who believe what they’re saying (almost irrespective of what the actual positions are) and hate bland and wishy-washy candidates who try to please everyone.

  19. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 09/18/2009 - 08:54 am.

    “I will not support an ‘establishment’ candidate like Entenza, Dayton or Kelliher. I think that the first two need to go quietly into the night with their baggage and I think that Kelliher showed her complete inability to lead during the last legislative session.”

    Amen. Entenza and Dayton have been part of the problem for years. Thank you for your service, now please just go away. Kelliher was completely outmaneuvered by Pawlenty this last session, and TPaw isn’t exactly a Rhodes scholar — what would make us think she would do any better in the governor’s chair?

    The DFL has been frustrating, childish, and petulent for years. Grow up, come together to battle the IRs instead of each other for a change, get a message that your own party members can understand, and rally behind one candidate who has some appeal to moderates in both the suburbs and outstate. This isn’t rocket science.

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