With one month to go until the Aug. 10 primary, what happens now in the hotly contested DFL primary that matches Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL’s endorsed candidate, against two wealthy challengers: Mark Dayton, the poll leader, and Matt Entenza, the X Factor?
It should be noted, in passing, that the Independence Party and Republican Party have primaries as well. But in each of those cases, the endorsed candidates — Tom Horner among the IPs, and the GOP’s Tom Emmer — appear to have pretty clear sailing to November.
So, for the moment, let’s focus on the DFL race.
One campaign offers a fishing metaphor for the month’s work ahead.
The view from a primary veteran
But first, let’s check in with Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman. Few have a clearer understanding of what the three DFL candidates are going through.
Freeman, the son of former Gov. Orville Freeman, was the DFL’s endorsed candidate in 1998, the year of the great race among huge DFL names.
Then there was Skip Humphrey, the son of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. And Ted Mondale, son of former Vice President Walter Mondale. And Dayton, of Minnesota’s signature department store family. And, finally, Doug Johnson, a powerful state legislator.
Freeman’s prediction for the current DFL race?
“I’ll go out on a limb,” he said “I believe that two weeks before the primary you’ll see a dead heat [in the polls].”
If that’s true, what will be the deciding factor?
“[The one] who has the most sophisticated field operation and who can turn out the voters,” said Freeman.
And who might that be?
His surprising answer: Entenza.
Again, understand Freeman’s view of the current race, is based on his experiences of 1998. He had the party endorsement. He had the bulk of the union support. A month before the September primary, he said, polls showed him with a narrow lead.
But, in retrospect, he believes he was unable to win because of the dynamics of the final weeks of the campaign. That’s when Dayton mounted a substantial television campaign, which Freeman thinks cost him the votes of party liberals. At the same time, Humphrey scored hugely with seniors.
At the end of the day, Humphrey pulled away with 37 percent of the primary vote, Freeman, Johnson and Dayton each got 19 percent, and Mondale lagged with 7 percent.
Freeman believes Kelliher likely is dealing with some of the same issues he faced. Endorsement from the party and unions is nice, but they’re likely not coming up with much money.
“I think you have a situation where the unions and activists are saying, ‘Anybody’s better than Emmer,’ ” Freeman said. “So you’ve got to go out and win the primary on your own, then we’ll support you.”
Dayton’s running mate, Yvonne Prettner Solon, agrees with Freeman’s theory about financial support. In an interview Thursday, she said that the single hardest thing about the campaign has been raising money.
“Everybody is willing to help you after the primary,” she said.
Reality check: usually, voter apathy
Time for a reality check about primary elections: For all the talk they create among pundits and pols, the vast majority of Minnesotans have taken to yawning off primary elections.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1950s, one in three eligible Minnesota voters participated in primaries. But even in that race of great names in ’98, fewer than one in five participated.
Given this year’s unprecedented early primary, it’s anybody’s guess as to how many people will show up at the polls during the height of summer.
The Entenza camp is most insistent that the turnout will not exceed 15 percent of eligible voters, meaning in an evenly divided race, a winner might need to pick up only slightly more than 150,000 votes.
Dave Colling, Entenza’s campaign manager, uses a fishing analogy to describe his take on the political environment:
He says that Dayton “has the lake with the most fish.” Kelliher, he believes, likely is trying to hook votes in the lake with the second-most fish.
That means that Entenza is casting in the lake with the fewest fish.
“But,” Colling said, “we have the best fisherman and the best lures.”
That “fisherman with the good lures” reference is to the campaign’s field staff, which the Entenza forces insist is doing best at identifying people who will actually show up and vote. The polls, the Entenza supporters have said for weeks, are based on the assumption that there will be a 30 percent turnout, a number they believe is way off-base.
Colling, a veteran of political campaigns, repeatedly points out that there’s a vast difference between primary elections and general elections.
The focus of the rest of the primary campaign, he says, will be making sure “your supporters get to the polls.”
Each of the campaigns constantly will be reminding their supporters of that Aug. 10 primary date. The Dayton campaign has made a big issue of the fact that those who will be on vacation then can vote by absentee ballot, a process that’s supposed to be easier and cleaner after legislative changes in procedures during the last session.
Again, though, it’s hard to know how many are paying attention to the absentee pleas. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 1,700 absentee ballots had been sent by midweek to the board now handling absentee ballots. That seems like a small number, but again, because of legislative changes in how absentee ballots are being handled, there’s no basis for accurate comparisons with other primaries.
TV ads — and more
But, of course, not everything will be about behind-the-scenes identification of supporters.
In fact, over the weekend, the Kelliher campaign is staging what it is billing as a grass-roots “extravaganza.” Called MAKtion, the campaign is saying “thousands of volunteers” will connect with 60,000 Minnesotans by either phone or door-knocking.
“We will win this campaign door-by-door, voter-by-voter,” Kelliher said in a news release about the event that will be staged from 84 locations around the state.
The effort is coinciding with the release of the first Kelliher television commercials. (Entenza has been running ads for months, and Dayton commercials began running recently.)
And voters will get several chances to measure the candidates against each other. The three will square off at least three times before the primary: Aug. 1 for a KSTP-League of Women Voters debate, Aug. 4 at Farmfest and Aug. 8 on Minnesota Public Radio.
An interested observer in all of this, Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton, says that Kelliher’s endorsement by the party and endorsements the bulk of the state’s unions can’t be shrugged off.
A month ago, Sutton said, he thought Dayton would be the primary winner “hands down.” Now, he’s backing off that assessment, at least a little.
“If I was to be Jimmy the Greek,” Sutton said, “I’d probably still say Dayton, with Kelliher second and Entenza the wild card.
“But the DFL party apparatus and the unions can be a big factor,” he said of Kelliher’s potential.
“If he’s willing to spend a ton of his wife’s stock option money,” said Sutton, chuckling at his slam, “he could make a move.”
But Sutton also believes that every vote Entenza wins could help boost Kelliher by taking votes from Dayton — a variation of the theory of two rich guys versus one woman.
So where does that leave us?
After more than a year of campaigns, nothing is even close to being decided.
Then, on Aug. 11, we’ll start all over again.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.