State Sen. Dick Day was speechless, unusual for the Owatonna Republican.
What silenced Day was this question: How do you define a moderate Republican in 2009?
After a long pause, Day finally hit upon his answer.
“That’s someone who can’t get endorsed,” he said.
The subject of moderation among Republicans was raised recently, when former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad said in a Minnesota Public Radio interview that there was just a small chance that he might consider running for governor. As quickly as he raised the window of opportunity, though, he shut it tightly, telling many that no, he’s not interested.
Such politicians as former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and former Gov. Arne Carlson mourn the passing of a broad-based Republican Party. But they — along with Republican-leaning analyst Tom Horner and former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, who’s now an independent — share the belief that the long campaigns aimed at the fringes of both parties open the door for the Independence Party to enter and prosper.
GOP won’t endorse ‘centrist’ Ramstad
Given the weariness of many voters toward partisan yapping, there’s no question that someone with a moderate record of a Jim Ramstad would be a formidable opponent.
“He’s exactly the kind of guy most people in the state would say ‘yes’ to,” said Day. “But he knows he can’t get endorsed. That means you have to get into a primary, and that changes everything — especially with Republicans. The one thing I like about Democrats is that they don’t seem to avoid primaries as much as we do. With people like [Mark] Dayton and [Matt] Entenza running, they’re almost sure to have a primary. I don’t think Republicans will.”
What would it take for someone such as Ramstad to win Republican endorsement?
“An act of God,” said Tom Horner, a former chief of staff for Durenberger and current commentator who still leans to the Republican point of view, but with reservations.
“I haven’t ever left the Republican Party,” he says. “It’s left me. I hear Democrats say the same thing. … We need to retire the word ‘moderate’ as an adjective. It’s not relevant to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Moderate should be used as a noun.”
Durenberger, a Republican moderate from a different era, calls what’s happened “miniaturization” of political thought.
In his party, Durenberger believes it started with Roe v. Wade (1973) and was entrenched with the Gingrich anti-government revolution (1994). The approach: Find small, wedge issues and rally the troops around them.
“Narrow the scope,” said Durenberger. “You no longer are looking at a national interest, or a state interest. You’re looking more at party interest.”
Carlson says that he saw this narrowing in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, but in that case, it was two DFL legislators, Mike Menning of Edgerton and Glen Sherwood of Pine River, who first pushed the Christian fundamentalist base to become politically active.
“When they [the fundamentalists] couldn’t find a home in the Democratic Party, they moved to the Republican Party,” said Carlson, noting that both Menning and Sherwood switched parties and made unsuccessful bids to win Republican Party endorsement for governor.
Caucus system works against moderates
It is Minnesota’s heavy emphasis on the caucus system that invites takeover by small but well-organized groups, Carlson says. The caucus system rewards those who show up. (On the left, Paul Wellstone was able to use the caucus system to leap from obscurity to the U.S. Senate. On the right, there has been any number of examples, including Allen Quist, who won endorsement over Carlson, a broadly popular governor outside the party but considered too liberal by GOP activists.)
Now, Ron Paul followers, with a strong anti-government attitude, are moving into the party and mixing in with the social conservatives.
But both the social conservatives and the Paulites operate from narrow perspectives. They may be true believers, Carlson said, but they are easily manipulated by cynics perfectly willing to say what those groups want to hear.
“Notice Tim Pawlenty,” said Carlson, with disdain. The governor, he said, “has incredible flexibility on policy. If he were a running back, he’d been sensational. He’s all over the field.”
Both Carlson and Durenberger believe narrowness is a greater problem for Republicans than for DFLers. As he watches the Minnesota gubernatorial race unfold, Durenberger has a hard time understanding how “they [Republican candidates] can reach out to the middle from where they’re standing.”
Though most Minnesotans are probably not paying attention yet, the process already is rolling.
Last Thursday, a handful of DFL candidates held an evening debate at the St. Cloud public library. And tonight, all nine of the active Republican candidates are to debate at the Bethesda Church in Prior Lake.
In reality, the Republican field, as it’s shaped now, is more of an echo chamber than the DFL pack. The Republicans all are running to the right of Pawlenty. All are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-abortion and pro-business.
The DFL field includes several centrists. For certain, Sen. Tom Bakk and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner fit that definition, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Rep. Paul Thissen are trying to position themselves more toward the center. Rep. Tom Rukavina is a populist, whose views shift to the left, the right or the center, depending on the issue.
Thissen, a state representative from Minneapolis, could be a dark horse to watch. He insists that the DFL activists he’s talking to aren’t so interested in the old litmus tests — pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-gay marriage, pro-tax the rich — as they are in one thing.
“The thing I keep hearing,” Thissen said, “is that we HAVE to put up somebody who can win.”
To date, no Independence Party candidates have stepped forward, although the party’s frequent standard bearer, former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley, hinted of his interest earlier this month, saying the race “looks pretty damned inviting.”
But, say Horner, Penny, Durenberger and Carlson, the way this race is evolving, this very easily could end up as the year that an IP candidate marches right down the middle and into the governor’s mansion.
Factors align against both DFL and GOP
Here are the main factors that make both parties so uninviting to the vast middle:
1. Neither the Republicans nor the DFLers have anybody resembling a favorite in the race. The Republican field is jammed with unknown state legislators who are pretty much saying the same thing. The DFL field has some better-knowns (several of them with political baggage — former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, state Sen. John Marty, and Kelliher) and a mix of slightly knowns (Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman) and then the unknowns.
Durenberger says the thing that marks both fields is the reality that none of the candidates can say, “Here’s my record of experience and judgment outside of politics.”
2. The length of the campaign forces candidates from both parties to spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with their respective bases.
“You’re playing to that 20 percent on the left or the right for months,” said Horner. “You’re playing to the special interests with the most extreme positions. After Labor Day 2010, how do you suddenly move back to the middle for the rest of the state?”
3. Neither party has distinguished itself in running state government in recent years.
“I think that by the time we get to next fall, there will be considerable awareness of how serious the budget problem is,” said Penny, once an IP gubernatorial candidate. “I think people will understand that the outgoing governor is leaving a huge mess behind, and that will make it difficult for Republicans to say they’re equipped to govern. But the Dems will give the same old canards: ‘Everything we do in government is so important that we can’t cut anything, so we’ll tax the rich.’ Most people in the state will conclude that both parties are out to lunch.”
4. Because both parties could have contested primaries, there’s little likelihood of crossover votes, which were instrumental in propelling Carlson past Quist in 1994. Carlson believes 30 percent of his primary win came from DFLers crossing party lines to vote in the Republican primary.
Penny, an adviser to the IPs, said he will not run himself.
“But several prominent people have approached the party with an interest in running,” Penny said. “It’s at a stage that I can’t give you names. We’ll wait and see what jells.”
But it’s the belief of both Penny and Horner that the ideal IP candidate would be a political outsider, preferably someone reasonably well known for business acumen.
“The best candidate,” said Penny, “would be an outsider who has proven management accomplishments.”
The big advantage the IPs have, both Penny and Horner believe, is that the party doesn’t have to put forward a candidate for months yet while those in the other parties will continue to preach to their respective choirs.
“Most likely, the Republicans and the DFL will end up with candidates who represent the 20 percent on both ends of the spectrum,” said Horner. “The key for the Independence Party would be to have a candidate who isn’t anti-Republican or anti-Democrat. This is a candidate who says, ‘Both parties have some good ideas. What we need is a neutral broker to put the best of the ideas to work.’ “
Carlson and Durenberger agree with that assessment: If the IP activists can find someone from outside the traditional political system — a respected business leader, who doesn’t care what people do in their bedrooms — they have a real chance at victory.
Penny believes the IP doesn’t need to step forward with a candidate until July, when most Minnesotans first will start paying attention. And it’s likely that most Minnesotans will be looking for a moderate, which recent history has shown will be difficult for either party to deliver.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.