For the next month, the DFL’s three gubernatorial ‘fishers’ will be angling for elusive primary votes

For the next month, the DFL's three gubernatorial 'fishers' will be angling for elusive primary votes

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.

Mike Freeman

Mike Freeman

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.

Tony Sutton

Tony Sutton

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.

Entenza’s chances?

“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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/09/2010 - 10:44 am.

    The story in today’s Strib describing Dayton’s candor…openess…specificity of proposals and agenda…and rejuvenated leadership qualities was a big move up for him. His suggestion to raise taxes on top earners resonates well with the liberal base; and they are often activist voters. At any rate, it sure has me leaning more his way as I try to objectively assess the candidates. My money would be on him to be the DFL candidate, and he would run well against Emmer, with clear and sharp differences in governing our state.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/09/2010 - 11:24 am.

    Myles, the problem I have with that assessment is Kelliher and Entenza are also planning to raise taxes on top earners. They just aren’t pretending that that’s enough. Remember that with Kelliher as Speaker, the DFL did vote to raise upper income taxes, even though it was a tough vote for some legislators. This is the vote for which Bachmann is beating up Clark.

    Just saying Kelliher isn’t just saying it, she tried to do it despite the political risks. Given how well she kept her caucus together as speaker, she has a record that shows she’ll be able to work with the legislature to get things done. Dayton is also right on policy matters, but I wonder how well he’ll be able to put those policies into effect.

    I also wonder how well he’ll work down the ballot in the general election. Given his record in prior elections, if he just goes off on his own again, he could cost legislative seats. If the Republicans take the legislature like they seem to expect, we’ll be gridlocked again.

  3. Submitted by Charles Turpin on 07/09/2010 - 11:31 am.

    We have three fine candidates. The issue is Emmer. Who has the best ideas on how to beat Emmer? The candidate that has the best ideas on how to beat Mr. Emmer gets my vote – and I WILL vote. I have not heard a word on this topic, and Mr. Emmer has said a number of things worthy of comment.

    I especially like Mr. Emmer’s belief that our servers are overpaid.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/09/2010 - 11:47 am.

    Well, to start with, I would have no problem supporting Kelliher…if she wins. I do have a problem with her vague platform and lack of clarity — which Dayton HAS done. Kelliher’s website is full of the same pablum we have seen too often in our politicians; and there is no mention of tax policy at all. Frankly, this is tiresome and trite. Clearly to balance our budget and get us back on track, we will need a combination of carefully made budget cuts AND revenue enhancement. Dayton has a plan for this, and has put numbers to it as well.

    What I would have to see from Kelliher, to vote for her in Aug is some specificity about what she would cut…and how she would raise revenues (Preferably with some numbers attached).

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/09/2010 - 12:53 pm.

    My theory is that Dayton has a key constituency in his corner – seniors who remember his busses to canada for meds. As seniors are the most reliable voting bloc, I think he’s going to be tough to beat in the primary.

  6. Submitted by Diane Clare on 07/09/2010 - 03:38 pm.

    I find any candidate involved in spending MN state surplus and rainy day funds during the 2006 session unacceptable as a possible governor. I thought it was fiscally irresponsible than and continue to hold that belief.
    With the current economic outlook we need someone who has not made such major errors.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/09/2010 - 07:39 pm.

    This might be interesting.

    I’m new to Minnesota, and this will be my first election here. I don’t know any of the players beyond some general and vague statements in news stories, but I’ve missed only one election – a local one – in 40+ years of voting eligibility, so I WILL vote.

    At the moment, I’m not excited about anyone on the DFL slate, and I side with Mr. Turpin. I have no idea which candidate is most likely to see to it that Mr. Emmer sees the governor’s mansion only as a visitor, but that’s the outcome I want to see in November.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/09/2010 - 08:32 pm.

    @ Diane.. This is not the first time folks have shown their concern regarding Speaker Kelliher and the role she has played in the budget process. The impression I get is that Dayton will benefit from that negative perception of Kelliher and the budget..

  9. Submitted by David Willard on 07/09/2010 - 11:59 pm.

    It’ll be great when the Democrat..umm Green party candidate survives the nomination. Then we can all hear how raising taxes and increasing “services” will help Minnesota. I don’t think there are that many government workers and limousine libs and greenies and takers of our money are in the state…yet. When the takers outnumber the “contributers” then…watch out, Minny! The Big Brothers will own you.

  10. Submitted by Karl Bremer on 07/11/2010 - 12:12 pm.

    “But,” Colling said, “we have the best fisherman and the best lures.”

    Interesting analogy, Mr. Colling. Because Minnesotans know that fisherman are also the best liars, and that seems to fit your candidate as well.

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