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Why the DFL’s chief attack dog is the DFL chief

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin

Earlier this campaign season, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson accused his Democratic opponent Mark Dayton of leaving rural Minnesota behind as governor, it wasn’t Dayton who responded to the attack.

It was DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who called a press conference to criticize Johnson for a 2003 vote as a state legislator to reduce local government aid funding by more than $300 million.

And when Republican secretary of state candidate Dan Severson said Democrats won elections in 2008 and 2012 with fraudulent votes, it wasn’t DFL secretary of state candidate Steve Simon who responded. Once again, it was Martin, who took to a podium to cast Severson as a “conspiracy theorist.” 

The two appearances were not coincidental. During the 2014 election cycle, Martin has put himself in the spotlight as the DFL’s designated attack dog, the man who responds to Republican criticisms while letting DFL candidates themselves appear above the fray.

It’s a role not all political party chairs would relish, but one Martin embraces.

“I’ve always thought our party chair is uniquely situated to be more aggressive in taking on our opponents,”  Martin said. “Our candidates can take the high road. There’s an old adage in politics that you never let any attack go unanswered. My job is to make sure if someone is attacking our party and our candidates that someone responds.” 

That someone is almost always him, employing a style that is somewhat akin to that of former GOP chair Tony Sutton, who was known for his fiery press conferences attacking Democrats. In contrast, Martin’s current Republican counterpart, Keith Downey, is a consultant and former legislator who has focused mostly on building a donor base and get-out-the-vote infrastructure for the fall election.

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Martin said he understands the importance of the quiet and deliberate work expected of the party chair — fundraising, building voter files, training local activists around the state — but he also doesn’t want to just sit behind a desk.

“All of our partners know that they have a party chair who is going to be out there and be aggressive in defending our candidates and defending our party,” Martin said. “In the past we haven’t necessarily had that.”

Martin inherited a battered DFL Party, taking over after it had suffered a series of losses in the 2010 election. He helped lead Democrats through one of their most successful cycles ever in 2012, when they defeated two GOP-led constitutional amendments, won majorities back in both legislative chambers, and took back the 8th Congressional District. Democrats now hold control of the governor’s office, all three constitutional offices, and the Legislature.

The midterm election is threatening to reverse some of those gains, and Martin plans to criss-cross the state with candidates over the next two weeks for the final push of the campaign season. “It’s a lot speeches and a lot of talking to people,” he said. “We need Minnesotans to know the difference between the candidates. They need to know what their options are.” 

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/27/2014 - 11:57 am.

    Somehow it’s not news to those of us who’ve been around for a few years, that the head of a state political party takes every opportunity to defend the party’s endorsed candidates in the general election.

    Martin responds with the tools he has: the press conference, real facts, quick turn-around time, the larger view of ALL the campaigns, ability to focus on the worst of the worst GOP inaccuracies or Super-PAC junk ads.

    I’m glad he’s there, doing this work, and doing it well.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/27/2014 - 02:21 pm.

    Martin hasn’t responded to MPR politifact pieces that label Frankens ads “Misleading”. As Connie points out, he’s got the “real facts”, but all we hear is crickets chirping.

    Why is that?

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