The secretary of state debate showed precisely why the race may be very close

Tuesday night’s Minnesota secretary of state debate courtesy of the UpTake.

Here was Steve Simon’s problem: Throughout the campaign for secretary of state, the DFL candidate hasn’t found it too difficult to show there is a distinct difference between himself and his main rival, Republican Dan Severson.

Simon has presented himself as the rational man in the race, someone who believes in the integrity of Minnesota’s voting system. At the same time, he’s tried to argue that Severson is a wild partisan who sees fraud behind every ballot box. Simon says he wants more voter participation, while Severson wants less.   

The problem for Simon is that late in this campaign Severson has dropped the flaming rhetoric, at least in front of most audiences. In Tuesday night’s debate at Augsburg College, for example, the new, mellow Severson went so far as to say, “We trust, for the large part, that our system works and reflects the voice of the people.”

With Severson so restrained, Simon seemed to believe then that he had two roles to fill. He had to be rational and knowledgeable. He did that by frequently mentioning that as a state Representative he’s sought bi-partisan support in pushing election law bills such as the no-excuses absentee voting, which is new to Minnesota this year.

But he also seemed to feel that he had to be the aggressor in the debate, pointing out that Severson — despite the new veneer of calm — is a candidate of “incendiary politics.” If Severson wasn’t going to say hot stuff during their forum, Simon felt obliged to remind people of comments Severson has made in the past. Simon mentioned that Severson once said that Minnesotas “vote for Obama was immoral,” and that he had recently charged that the president has tried to suppress military voting. 

Additionally, Simon called Severson’s big idea — express lanes for people with photo identification — a form of “separate but equal” voting. 

Severson jumped on the line, calling it “race-baiting’’ and saying that “Minnesotans are tired’’ of that sort of politics.

Simon’s aggressiveness seemed to reveal some concern that the race is tight. There may be valid reasons for that concern. The secretary of state race is the only one not involving an incumbent, and Severson is known around the state because of his prior unsuccessful run for the position. (In 2010, he lost to DFL incumbent Mark Ritchie by just three points.) Severson comes to the race with a conservative base — but he also believes he’s made some in-roads into traditional DFL strongholds, such as the Somali community near the Augsburg campus. In the final days of the campaign, Severson is using social media to “micro target’’ independent voters, using messages that emphasize his military service.

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One old political pro, former Congressman Martin Olav Sabo, was in attendance at the Tuesday night debate. (The debate was presented by the League of Women Voters and the Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning at Augsburg.) Sabo’s not sure that Simon needs to be terribly concerned, essentially because he probably won’t have a great deal of control of what happens in the race. Sabo believes down-ticket races are largely determined by what happens in the gubernatorial and Senatorial races. If those races are one-sided, coattails will carry along those of the same party. (Recent polls show the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Minnesota are getting closer.)

It should be noted that the Independence Party’s Bob Helland and Libertarian Bob Odden also were involved in the Tuesday night debate, which was attended by about 200 people. Those two actually added a bit of humor — and a few gasps — to the affair. 

Helland, 29, spent most of the night deflecting questions about voter participation and talking about the business aspects of the secretary of state’s job. He drew some yuks in his debate summary when he drew on the John Lennon in talking about his chances of winning.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,’’ Helland said. Given that many in the crowd were collegians when Lennon and the Beatles were at their prime, the line was appreciated.

On the other hand, Odden sometimes had the people in the audience chuckling, and other times raising their eyebrows. He compared Republicans and Democrats to “Coke and Pepsi.” Libertarians? “Sometimes you need some excitement. Try Root Beer or Mountain Dew.”

When he was asked a question about Minnesota’s “Safe At Home’’ program, which is a way for those who want to vote but need their addresses kept secret — usually women who have been victims of domestic abuse — Odden seemed to approve of the program but also wondered out loud: “Are these women getting counseling on making better choices?’’   

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/29/2014 - 09:17 am.

    With all due respect to your experience…

    …without any solid polling data to suggest the MN SOS race will be close, this is speculative.

    • Submitted by Steve Carlson on 10/29/2014 - 10:04 am.

      Did you pay attention to the DFL primary?

      Because Steve Simon revealed himself to be a totally incompetent campaigner, at very best.

      Here’s the uncomfortable reality:
      Steve Simon only took a plurality of the vote in the DFL primary because his profile was so low after getting the endorsement that two joke candidates, both of whom actually ran in the joke 2013 Minneapolis mayor’s race, took 58% of the vote.

      Steve Simon came WAY way too close to losing the DFL primary to a bunch of no names. Why should we expect him to do any better in a real election? Just because?

      • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/29/2014 - 01:56 pm.

        Know of any DFLers voting for Dan Severson?

        Me either. So what happened in the primary doesn’t matter.

        If the DFL does a decent job of getting voters to the polls (for a midterm election), then Simon should do fine. He should also be helped by the early absentee voting.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/29/2014 - 11:12 am.

    split tickets?

    If we believe the polling that Franken & Dayton have comfortable leads, the question is whether there are split ticket voters, or voters who skip down ballot races. I doubt there are enough of either to sway the race for severson.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/29/2014 - 03:47 pm.

    Express Lanes

    Creating express lanes for people with photo identification doesn’t have much merit for the simple reason that it won’t work. You only have one roster when you get to the table, so everyone has to go through the one line regardless. That would mean the people who have an ID would all get to go to the front of the line ahead of those without ID, even if the latter group had been waiting in line for hours.

    Can you imagine the riots that would ensue?

    If this is the best idea Severson can do, he needs to go back and put his thinking cap on. I would suggest he start by talking to city clerks and election judges to ask them what improvements can be made.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/29/2014 - 09:38 pm.

      HOV lanes to vote? Express lanes, 10 items or less?

      Isn’t that just a new twist on the inadequate voting machines & long lines down south?
      They are backing into requiring ID & voter cards – when people are already registered & on the rolls.

      It creates a privileged class to “buy” their way into shorter lines – and a new way to demand ID.
      The wrong message.

      Again – there is no evidence for this change.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Helland on 10/29/2014 - 05:55 pm.

    deflecting questions?

    What question has Bob Helland deflected?

    Throughout this campaign you have tried your best to minimize Bob Helland as a viable candidate!

    He has throughout the debates and forum (With Much Success!) to change the narrative from legislating to the duties and the full functions of the Secretary of State.

    Not only does it seem you have not paid attention to the SOS you clearly do not understand the responsibilities of the office.

    Bob Helland has not only educated those of us who have watched and read his views, but by there latest responses the others candidates have also been given a lesson on the duties of the office as well as the MN Constitution.

    But then again as GOP/DFL legislatures that have contributed to gridlock, dysfunction, and partisanship why would they bother with the details of the purpose of the office.

    Elect Bob Helland and you will get administrator in the office that will carry out the functions of the office efficiently and effectively as it is defined.

    Jeff Helland (Full Disclosure, Bob’s proud dad)

  5. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 10/29/2014 - 07:00 pm.

    Helland may do better than voters think he will

    Voters do not want a partisan, whether that partisanship is real or perceived, to hold office in a position that should be as nonpartisan as that of legislative auditor. If Simon is facing a threat from anyone, it would be from Bob Helland, who brings technological expertise and a willingness to embrace the totality of what the secretary of state does, not just election law and administration. Despite the “and the rest” coverage he is getting, Helland could be a game-changer in the SOS race.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/29/2014 - 08:27 pm.

      If he’s a game changer

      it won’t be because he wins. It will be that he draws enough votes from Simon to allow a Severson win and that would be a disaster for this state. Severson is a teavangelist who thinks God talks to him and would be hell bent on diminishing voting rights. We already experienced that when Kiffmeyer held this office and I want no part of experiencing deja vu. I’m interested in winning elections, not sending messages that ultimately do nothing but make matters worse. Look to Maine and the election of LePage as Governor in 2010 for a prime example of what I’m referring to.

      • Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/30/2014 - 09:13 am.

        For your consideration…

        For those who have taken an opportunity to look into who I am as a candidate rather than jump to a fear-based conclusion that, “The independent in the race will result in a conservative candidate’s victory by taking away progressive votes”. If Rep. Simon loses, it will be because he has not effectively pitched himself as a “secretary of state for ALL Minnesotans”, as he likes to say. If I win or perform better than expectations, it’s because I have. What happened to the “D” in DFL, Mr. Myron?

        In their endorsement of Rep. Simon, the Rochester Post Bulletin gave me high-praise and recognition for my role and effort in the race:

        “Helland may offer the most genuine take on the office’s need for a nonpartisan official, noting he is neither a democrat nor a republican. With a conservative take on business and his rejection of voter ID, he could easily attract supporters from both parties. [….] We liked what we saw in Helland. Often dismissed as a third-party candidate, the 29-year-old showed us a level of understanding that makes him a contender in the race. He’s not reaching for the obvious political vote. Rather, he’s working to address an issue he sees as neglected, and he’s doing a terrific job at it. [….] If Simon is elected, we hope he will remember Helland’s concerns and ambitions and reach out to him to find ways the secretary of state’s office can work with other agencies to streamline the business side of the office’s responsibilities.”

        This is what most Minnesotans I talk to actually want and people are recognizing that I am the only candidate speaking to the full constitutional function of the secretary of state and that I am a genuine, qualified individual who can serve without regard to partisanship.

        ~Bob Helland
        for Minnesota Secretary of State
        Watch debate footage at

  6. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 10/30/2014 - 09:43 am.

    So what’s the solution?

    Make it illegal for anyone outside of the two major parties to run in an electoral race?

    Or open races up to third, fourth and fifth parties (which they already are, as seen on most ballots) who can open up the electoral base to people for whom the “bipartisan” narrative doesn’t fit?

    With his emphasis on business services and helping young people get started in their own business, Helland could easily pull votes from Severson.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/30/2014 - 02:46 pm.

      Of course not, Susan.

      I harbor no ill will towards Mr. Helland. In fact, I admire his tenacity and drive, but I’m being realistic and the fact is, he has no chance to win. I also categorically reject your assertion that there’s just as much chance he pulls votes from Severson as he does Simon. This is a midterm and GOP voters are driven by a white hot rage against anything to the left. There’s no way that 99.9% of them aren’t going to vote a straight GOP ticket. It’s just not going to happen. I have voted indie in the past, I’ve also voted GOP at times when the party was still sane and I know many DFLers that have as well, but in this race…heck, at this time in history, there’s no way I’m going to part of allowing another GOP extremist to gain office, especially when they’ve made it clear that their prime agenda is restricting voting rights. Protest votes are the prime reason that the GOP was swept into so many legislative offices in 2010…and look at the end result.

  7. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 10/30/2014 - 03:09 pm.

    So, again, I ask, what’s the solution?

    Wait until the GOP stops running extremists before a third party runs?

    What I categorically reject is the assertion that a vote for a third-party candidate is a “protest vote.” A third-party vote is a vote for that particular candidate, not against Candidate A or B.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/30/2014 - 04:08 pm.

      Call it whatever you want.

      the end result is still the same. The time for an Indie party to make a play for a larger base was wasted when Ventura was elected. They did absolute nothing to establish a brand, much less a political ethos other than “we’re not GOP or DFL.” My solution would be to start playing politics for real instead of as a hobby and field candidates that, like Mr. Helland, are articulate and charismatic on a grander scale and get some money behind them to spread their message. If you want to make a dent in 2016, you should be laying the groundwork for that now.

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