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

The party begins the 2010 election season with a crowded field that includes several high-profile candidates for governor.

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.