Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


17 candidates on the long march: sizing up Minnesota’s crowded governor’s race

Running on the fumes of holiday optimism, the army of active gubernatorial candidates marches into this new year.

17 candidates on the long march: Sizing up Minnesota's crowded governor’s race

Running on the fumes of holiday optimism, the army of active gubernatorial candidates marches into this new year. The seven GOP candidates and 10 DFL candidates all seem to think they have the wherewithal to win party endorsement, a process that begins early with the Feb. 2 precinct caucuses.

That so many candidates remain is an indication that no one has been able to take command in either party. It’s also an indication that you can run for high state office on a small budget, at least in the early stages.

Where do things stand?

The Republican Party race is easier to summarize, because many, including some who typically are generous contributors, are waiting to see what former Sen. Norm Coleman will do. If Coleman decides to stay out of the race, state Reps. Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer, as well as former State Auditor Pat Anderson, are at the top of a very conservative class for endorsement.

Article continues after advertisement

Coleman’s entrance, though, could switch the debate at the state convention (April 29 to May 1) from conservative purity to electability.

What remains to be seen in all of this is how big a factor the new Republican activists — the Tea Party crowd, the Ron Paul followers and the libertarians — will be in the endorsement process. Will those impassioned folks have the patience to go through the tedious process of becoming state delegates?

The DFL contest is much messier and is all but certain to end with a costly primary involving an endorsed candidate against at least one well-financed opponent.

On paper, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher seems to have the clearest shot at early-ballot endorsement. But she’s not without problems, and there is any number of candidates trying to position themselves as the consensus candidate who can bring the party together.

The DFL’s rules committee, which will meet prior to the April 23-25 state convention, will play a big role in the outcome. If the rules committee sets a low drop-out standard for percentage of votes needed to survive early ballots, the chances of a compromise candidate winning endorsement increases. If a high standard is set, the two or three front-runners entering the convention have the best chance of coming out of the convention with the endorsement. 

Meanwhile, the Independence Party is sitting back, in no rush to get behind a candidate. The longer DFL and Republican candidates try to appeal to their respective left and right bases, the more inviting the middle ground of the IP looks (at least in the view of IP leaders.) Party officials believe that someone with a business background — who is not interested in what goes on in Minnesota bedrooms — would make the ideal candidate.

Based on conversations with a number of political activists in the two parties and those close to the campaigns of the candidates, what follows is a rundown on the two fields:  

DFL Party
Margaret Anderson KelliherShe has the longest list of endorsements from elected officials and will have the support of a solid corps of women who will enter the convention thinking it’s way past time the party endorses a female candidate for governor. (Remember, by rule, half of the delegates at the DFL convention will be women.) She has solid, though not universal, labor support.

BUT . . . according to other campaigns, 60 percent of the likely delegates still are undecided. Additionally, there are rumblings that Kelliher doesn’t wear particularly well: The more potential delegates get to know her, the less passionate they feel about her. As House speaker, she also has to come out of another difficult legislative session looking like a leader, no easy feat, given that she doesn’t just have to match wits and political philosophy with Gov. Tim Pawlenty but with Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller as well. And there is that little matter of the recent “mistake”  involving campaign contributions and the DFL. That’s a nagging issue among some DFL activists.

Article continues after advertisement

Tom Bakk: The senator from Cook has piled up the most blue-collar union support. He’s got the endorsement of the Building & Construction Trades and North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Bakk also ranks second, to Kelliher, in endorsements from elected officials. Compared with others in the field, he is a relative moderate, which suggests he has a better chance in the general election than some of his more left-leaning peers. He is quick to point out that coming from the Range is a good thing for the party. The DFL hasn’t had a governor since Rudy Perpich, who was a Ranger.

BUT … at the risk of sounding sexist, there are women who say his message about the fundamental importance of jobs often comes across as angry, not passionate. He’s got one other problem … Tom Rukavina, the colorful state rep from Virginia who cuts into Bakk’s regional support.

Mark Dayton: There were “oh no” groans among some DFLers when the former senator announced he was in the race. He has, however, been the surprise of the field. His “tax the rich” line has been the most applauded comment at a number of forums. Picking up the endorsement of the influential AFSCME union was a huge — and stunning — deal. Dayton has made it clear that he’ll go to a primary if he does not win endorsement, and in that environment, he’s tough. He can self-finance, and he’s much favored by seniors. Recent self-revelations about depression and an alcoholism slip probably don’t change anything for Dayton in the primary. For starters, insiders have been talking about Dayton’s “moods” for years. Beyond that, as a group, DFL primary voters are going to be as open-minded as any group regarding mental health issues.

BUT … there’s a sense among DFLers that, after his largely unsuccessful term as a U.S. senator, Dayton would be a weak candidate in the general election.

Matt Entenza: His futuristic messages about energy, the environment and education should appeal, but to date, he has not captured the imagination of many in the party. Quite bluntly, he generates virtually no presence behind a mic. Entenza is smart, progressive and has received the endorsement of Stonewall DFL (the gay community is highly organized and active and can be a substantial factor at both the convention or in the primary). Though he says he’s focus is on winning the endorsement, Entenza, like Dayton, could be a big factor in the primary, where his ability to self-finance separates him from most candidates.

BUT … some in the party can’t forget the blundering Entenza-Hatch feud of 2006 that featured a firm hired by Entenza trying to dig up dirt on eventual gubernatorial nominee Mike Hatch. That forced Entenza out of his effort to run for attorney general. Additionally, one of the reasons he can self-finance is that his spouse, Lois Quam, a supporter of a public option in a health insurance overhaul, made zillions as an executive with UnitedHealth Group.

Susan Gaertner: Nobody has been at this race longer than the Ramsey County district attorney. Her persistence is commendable. Her message — that the party must appeal to Minnesota centrists — makes sense. Her belief that Amy Klobuchar’s overwhelming victory in her first Senate race shows that voters have confidence in both women and prosecuting attorneys is logical. Gaertner has managed to pick up the endorsement of children’s advocate Patty Wetterling and a couple of elected officials.

BUT … at this point, it’s hard to imagine Gaertner getting past the first ballot at the state convention.

Steve Kelley: The former state legislator from Hopkins is much admired for his intelligence and his competence. Most DFLers who have paid any attention at all to the outcome of failed gubernatorial races dating to 1990 understand that whatever the party has been doing doesn’t work. Kelley says the party must learn to appeal to moderate voters in the suburbs, which he says he can do. Kelley, who has the support of 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, won’t likely score high in early endorsement ballots, but he could be the sort of consensus candidate who brings everyone together in later ballots.

Article continues after advertisement

BUT … the man can be dull. Additionally, he’s seen as one of those candidates who has been around the block one too many times, even though that’s an unfair perception.

John Marty: He’s a progressive’s progressive, a lefty’s lefty, the Mr. Clean of clean government. The Roseville senator will rally some support among those who share his belief in universal health care for Minnesotans. He’ll be the candidate so many of the party’s activists will want to support.

BUT … it’s hard for many in the party to forget the 1994 gubernatorial election, when as the party’s nominee, he drew just 34 percent against Arne Carlson’s 63 percent.

Tom Rukavina: The state rep from Virginia has the potential to give the sort of fiery speech that actually will win over the hearts of some undecided convention delegates. His straight-from-the-gut style has led to his being called “the love child” of Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone, a comparison that delights him.

BUT … because of his style and sometimes politically incorrect cracks, he’s not seen as a serious candidate by many.

R.T. Rybak: Rybak, the thrice-elected mayor of Minneapolis, seems to be pinning his endorsement hopes on bringing in on a state level the new breed of Obama activists. Rybak does have ties to the president, and he does have the sort of enthusiasm that seems to generate some excitement. But the fact is that a gubernatorial race doesn’t fan passions the way a presidential race does. It remains to be seen if Obama activists will have the interest and endurance it takes to become state convention delegates. Rybak does have one Teamsters union endorsement as well as an endorsement from the DFL Veterans Caucus. At 55 years old, he still comes across as a fresh face.

BUT … no Minneapolis mayor ever has been elected governor, and Rybak may have a difficult time connecting with lunch-bucket DFLers.

Paul Thissen: There’s a little of Kelley in Thissen. He comes across as bright and competent, and if he can survive the early ballots, he might even be the surprise candidate a divided convention could rally around. He’s proved to be an adept fundraiser and, according to various reports, has been effective in his one-on-ones with potential convention delegates. He also has the endorsement of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

BUT … he entered this fray with virtually no name recognition. At caucus time, will enough potential delegates to the state convention know his name to make him a factor?

Article continues after advertisement

Republican Party
Pat Anderson: Like Emmer, she appeals to the new breed of libertarians who seem to be moving heavily into the party. She’s strongly anti-abortion, but on other bedroom issues — such as the status of gay couples — she’s a little more open-minded than the rest of the field. Though not favoring gay marriage, she suggests that gay couples could win many of the protections they seek through various legal contracts. Anderson, a former state auditor and currently the commissioner of employee relations, wins respect — though no votes — from various unions because she has been the only Republican candidate to participate in union screenings. Many Republicans like the idea that their party could be the first to put a woman at the top of a gubernatorial ticket.

BUT … for those Republicans who are suspicious of government, this is a person who has spent a lot of time in government.

Leslie Davis: Differentiation from the rest of the field is no problem for Davis, a longtime environmental activist. He is the only Republican candidate who believes that man-made global warming is a real and present danger. Presumably, he’s become a Republican candidate because in his view, he’s weary of all the environmental talk that comes from DFLers but little meaningful action.

BUT … when Republicans find out who has crashed the party, Davis will get a polite round of applause and then shown the door.

Tom Emmer: Most see the rep from Delano as the candidate on front-runner Marty Seifert’s heels. According to one campaign adviser, “the red-meat Republicans” love his speaking style, which is tinged with a bit of anger. He’s won a couple of straw polls at party events in recent weeks, but the numbers of participants polled have been minuscule. He takes a hockey player’s approach (he loves the game) to politics, believing you should be able to go nose to nose with those with whom you disagree and then, at the end of the day, shake hands. Some pols, though, have thinner skins than hockey players and don’t recover from bruises so easily. He’s appealing to those new Republicans (who tend to be extreme fiscal conservatives) and is comfortable with the social conservatives.

BUT … even those who find Emmer appealing are concerned about how he would play to the state in a general election.

Bill Haas: You know you probably have a problem when even people inside the party are asking such questions as: “Is he still in the race?” The former state rep, who in recent years has worked as a lobbyist for the White Earth band, was the first official candidate in the race. He’s opposed to more taxes, and he’s a social conservative.

BUT … does anyone notice him?

David Hann: From the website of the senator from Eden Prairie: “I am a principled conservative who believes the solutions we choose must be based on sound principles. … A campaign of slogans and sound bites is not enough.’’ Hmmm. Therein would seem to be the biggest problem Hann has. He did finish second, to Emmer, at a straw poll following a recent event at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but it is not clear why he is any different from the other conservatives in this field. What sets him apart? Coming from the western suburbs should be a political asset.

BUT … at this point, it appears that Hann has been slow in defining why he should be the party’s choice.

Phil Herwig: It’s often said this is a field of “cookie cutter” candidates, but it ain’t necessarily so. For instance, Herwig, from Milaca, is a former union member who often mentions a kind note he received from Paul Wellstone. He also gets moved every time he mentions hearing Martin Luther King speak. In his campaign biography, he even mentions Arne Carlson, a name that causes many current Republicans to wince in pain. One other thing: Herwig says unkind things about Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who, Herwig says, doesn’t practice what he preaches. He bills himself as a “true conservative” who opposes gun control, abortion and tax increases. What separates him from most others, he says, is that he won’t compromise on the basics.

BUT … he’s never been elected to any political office.

Marty Seifert: His straw poll victory at the Republicans’ state convention in October gave him the distinction of front-runner. He was substantially ahead of the field but did poll just 34 percent of the vote. As the former House minority leader (he stepped down from that position when he announced he was becoming a candidate for governor), Seifert has the advantage of knowing Republicans throughout the state. At 38, he is the youngest candidate in the field from either party, but his ideas are old-line conservative Republican, right down to his conviction that welfare must again be reformed and that illegal immigrants are a big issue.

BUT … for a man who takes care with his words in prepared remarks, Seifert can blunder in off-the-cuff situations, making him a loose cannon in a statewide race.

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