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With primary battle ahead, DFL-endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher has no time to celebrate

With the DFL endorsement for governor Saturday night, one campaign ended and another began. Now, it’s Kelliher, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and, likely to a lesser extent, Susan Gaertner, who matter as DFLers prepare for the Aug. 10 primary.

A triuphant Margaret Anderson Kelliher addresses delegates late Saturday after winning the DFL Party's endorsement for governor.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
A triuphant Margaret Anderson Kelliher addresses delegates late Saturday after winning the DFL Party’s endorsement for governor.

Update: Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner announced this afternoon that she is dropping out of the race for governor and will not run in the DFL primary.

At the moment R.T. Rybak dropped from the DFL race for governor in Duluth Saturday night, one campaign was over, and another had begun.

Names like Rybak, Thissen, Rukavina and Marty are yesterday’s news.

Now, it’s Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and, likely to a lesser extent, Susan Gaertner, who matter to DFLers as they attempt to select a gubernatorial candidate on Aug. 10.

Republicans, meanwhile, go about the business of selecting their endorsed candidate — Tom Emmer or Marty Seifert — this week at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Likely, there will be no primary contest, although there are faint whisperings that moderate Republicans, who are all but shut out of this convention, still are urging someone, such as Jim Ramstad, to mount a primary bid in an effort to push the party closer to the political middle.

A week after that, the Independence Party will hold its convention and is expected to endorse public relations executive Tom Horner, though it’s expected there will be a primary race before that party has a candidate.

But for the moment, the political chatter centers on Kelliher, now the first woman to win the DFL gubernatorial endorsement. Can she rally the party around her and defeat two well- (and self)-financed male candidates?

Here’s a look at each of the DFL candidates and the next stage of a long, exhausting, expensive process.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
During the endorsement campaign, she and her staff seemed to sometimes take offense when the question of gender was brought up. For example, when Rybak responded to a question about gender, Kelliher and some members of her staff were quick to jump on the mayor for “trying to play the gender card.”

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Margaret Anderson Kelliher

In fact, though, many of her key supporters do see gender as an issue. Their feelings can be summed up in two questions: If not Kelliher, who? If not now, when?

Clearly, Kelliher no longer is ready to act offended about the gender factor in this race.

“DFLers, are you ready to make history?” she asked the crowd at the moment she won endorsement.

Kelliher won endorsement with good old-fashioned muscle politics. The House speaker had the lock on super-delegates and a good supply of labor support. What put her over the top was the moment that Rukavina, a state rep, stepped down and threw his support to the speaker. What was amazing about that moment was that more than 90 percent of Rukavina’s supporters followed their leader to Kelliher.

Her traditional support proved to be much stronger and more reliable than the new-age effort by reNew, an umbrella organization that promised to deliver 100 or more united delegates at some key point in the convention. reNew whiffed in exercising power, never uniting behind one candidate, though its three preferred candidates were the last one standing.

In Phase 2 of the race to get her name on the ballot in November, Kelliher faces two obstacles beyond her opposition.

The first obstacle could be the biggest. After a whirlwind trip around the state today, she will be back to being House speaker. Facing an uncompromising governor in hard budget times, that’s not a pleasant spot to be in. Most legislators want to slip out of St. Paul quickly and quietly, making as few headlines as possible for the remainder of this session.

But what if the state’s Supreme Court does rule in favor of the plaintiffs in the unallotment case it’s dealing with at this moment? What if the Supremes say that all of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotments — more than $2 billion — violate the spirit of the unallotment law? Suddenly, the Legislature, and, to a lesser extent, the governor would be dealing with a massive, ugly, budget problem that would have to be fixed. Could Kelliher finesse herself out of that spot?

On the other hand, her position as speaker does provide extra visibility and allows her to argue that no one is more prepared to step into the governor’s office and all the fiscal problems that loom.

Her other problem is more traditional. Can she rally supporters of the DFL opponents she just defeated to come quickly to her side? In particular, the Rybak supporters, some of whom are bitter over the strength Kelliher had among super-delegates, will need time to heal before they’ll be ready to cast a vote for Kelliher in the primary.

Finally, there’s this: Kelliher the candidate is not as appealing as Kelliher the human being. The woman is earthy and funny. The candidate often comes across as scripted and stiff. In part, that’s probably because as a perceived frontrunner, she has had a different sort of pressure on her than most candidates. There’s a strong inclination to be guarded when you’re in a lead position.
Mark Dayton
The former U.S. senator may be the biggest surprise in the race. When he entered, there was a “not him again” sigh among many political insiders. But with Rukavina gone, he’s the populist in the race.

Mark Dayton
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Mark Dayton

“Tax the rich!” is a three-word mantra Minnesotans are going to hear about a million times between now and the primary. Coming from a rich guy, it is an appealing message. Given the fact that most Minnesotans aren’t rich, it should have a nice ring to it for many folks.

Even though Dayton avoided the endorsement process, he’s been able to attract institutional DFL support, with the endorsement of AFSCME his biggest score. Now, watch to see which direction SEIU heads and, no matter what Education Minnesota does in terms of endorsements, Dayton surely has captured the affection of many of that union’s members with his strong support of teachers.

Dayton also knows how to make a headline. At the DFL convention he was sidestepping, he made the first big headline by expressing outrage over the fact that the party would not allow him on the convention floor.

Obviously, Dayton knew that the DFL wasn’t going to open its arms to him, given his spurning of the party process. Yet, he made it appear to those who don’t follow processes closely that he was somehow a victim of those nasty party insiders.

Dayton has huge name recognition, a fat checkbook and a dedicated following among seniors, whose issues he’s long supported.

That block of senior voters could be especially important in this year, given the historically early primary date and their tendency to show up in big numbers at the polls.

Primaries always are low-turnout events. There’s great concern among party officials that the Aug. 10 date will increase primary apathy, as many Minnesotans concentrate more on walleyes, golf and camping trips than politics.

But Dayton’s seniors are less likely to be distracted, and they do vote.
Matt Entenza
To date, the former state rep has been something of a background candidate in this race, but he’s coming out of the mists big time now.

Matt Entenza
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Matt Entenza

On Sunday, he was off on a seven-city tour that took him from Duluth to Mankato to Rochester to Winona to East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Bemidji. He’s hitting the television airwaves Tuesday with an expensive television campaign.

One other thing, few campaigns have spent as much time and money on organizing as Entenza. He’s had 15 staffers scattered throughout the state, building an organization.

No candidate is so futuristic as Entenza, who will continue to pound on the theme of building an environmentally friendly, jobs-creating energy system for Minnesota. This message is said, by some observers, to be playing particularly well among collegians.

Entenza’s other big theme is re-investing in the state’s education system. He will emphasize that he wants today’s kids to have the same opportunities he had as a poor kid growing up in rural Minnesota.

These two issues and his understated style might play well in the suburbs. But the question is whether Entenza, who doesn’t score high on charisma charts, can get supporters to the polls for a summertime primary. On the other hand, he doesn’t carry the baggage that both Kelliher (who might be seen by many as a political insider) and Dayton (who had a rough six years in the U.S. Senate) might be toting.
Susan Gaertner
No candidate has been at it longer than the Ramsey County attorney. She was campaigning back in 2008 at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Susan Gaertner
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Susan Gaertner

She has tried to position herself as a DFL moderate, with political views and professional experiences similar to those of a former Hennepin County district attorney, Sen. Amy Klobuchar. She has told anyone who will listen that she is the candidate who can get suburbanites to vote DFL in November.

Her problem, though, is she’s running a small-budget campaign in a big-bucks race. How can she be heard above the roar of the TV spots that her opponents will be running?

Surely, her hopes weren’t helped with when the party endorsed Kelliher. That took away the chance of being positioned as the lone woman in a field of rich men.

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