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At DFL convention, fear has a name — and that name is not Donald Trump

Minnesota is less than two years from an election cycle that could, according to fearful Democrats, make the state’s politics look like Wisconsin’s. 

DFL Chair Ken Martin and Donna Cassutt speaking to DFL Central Committee members prior to Saturday's vote.
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

There’s nothing like a lot of fear to bring a political party together. 

DFL activists — the nearly 500 members of the party’s Central Committee — gathered in Hinckley on Saturday. The main stated purpose of the meeting was to elect a party chair. Ultimately, Ken Martin was re-elected, easily defeating Donna Cassutt.

But it was the tone of the all-day meeting that was most important. Was this a party still brooding over the Trump revolution? Were the activists still saying “how could anyone vote for Trump?” Or were these party stalwarts willing to look in a mirror and say, “How could we have become so far removed from the voters?”

Of course, Trump did not carry Minnesota. But DFLers weren’t taking much solace in that. Not only did Trump run very well in this once blue state — losing by less than two percentage points — Republicans took control of both legislative chambers. And races in once safe DFL districts were far closer than expected.

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Those results have created a particular brand of dread in the party: that if the DFL doesn’t do some serious re-connecting with Minnesotans, the GOP could, in the 2018 election cycle, have an even better year than it did in 2016.

In fact, over and over again, one name was heard in speeches and conversations among delegates. But that name wasn’t Donald Trump. It was Scott Walker, the personification of a fear that Minnesota is less than two years from an election cycle that could make the state’s politics look like, well, Wisconsin’s. 

A million little tents

At the convention, most DFLers seemed focused more on what they did wrong in the last election than they were on being horrified at the outcome. “If we want more people to turn out we need to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” said Martin in a speech to the delegates.

Of course. Simple. A positive message, a formula that is well understood by the activists.

The wrinkle, however, is deciding what that message is supposed to be. This is a party that has sliced and diced and chopped itself into a bunch of pieces. You’ve got your seniors caucus. Your LGBTQ caucus. Your women’s caucus. Your brown caucus. Your black caucus. Your green caucus. This isn’t a one-big-tent kind of party. It’s a million little tents. 

“We have so many caucuses, but what about the white Christian working guy caucus?” asked Nancy Larson, a delegate from Dassel, which lies in the Republican-rich 7th Congressional District. “That’s not said with malice. That part of our problem.”

Larson is a flaming progressive at heart. She ran as the lieutenant governor in John Marty’s campaign for governor in 1994. But she’s also a political pragmatist. “You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t win,” she said.

Candidates speak

Larson believes the next DFL gubernatorial candidate needs to come from the middle, someone such as U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Others believe the party has to articulate a more clearly progressive message if it wants to remain successful. 

To that end, there were three announced gubernatorial candidates on hand at the Saturday event. State auditor Rebecca Otto, Rep. Erin Murphy, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman all spoke to the delegates.

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There also was a group promoting a “draft Rick Nolan” for governor. Nolan, the 8th District Congressman, is a good, old-fashioned orator. His speech was one of the few that had delegates paying attention.

But Nolan is also 73 years old now. By election day 2018, he’d be nearing 75, so his supporters had a single glossy printout to answer the “too old” question. On one side of the paper were black and white photos of Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (78), former vice President Joe Biden (74) and Bernie Sanders (75). On the flip side was a color photo of Nolan. (Hillary Clinton was not a factor in the too-old discussions. In fact, Clinton’s was a name seldom mentioned at the convention. Among activists, it seems, she is yesterday’s news, except in a negative sense.)

Indeed, perhaps the main reason that Martin was challenged by Cassutt was the fact that he endorsed Clinton so early in the presidential process. He says now he endorsed because he wanted to be “honest” and “transparent” with party members. But the Sanders wing was furious with Martin. The party should be neutral in intra-party politics, and Martin promised he’ll never endorse again.

Nobody’s perfect

But the bigger concern was whether the DFL could unify around a few big, inclusive themes.

The more radical elements of the party say that the party is locked into a box befitting the 20th century, not this one. The “Farmer” and “Labor” elements of the party have gone away. Oh sure, tepid labor leaders still have clout among party pols. But blue collar workers went for Trump.

More moderate DFLers pushed a back-to-basics theme. “Trump captured the emotional aspects of our economic message,” said state Sen. Dan Schoen, a relatively new voice in the party. “He wasn’t honest, but this was an election of raw emotions. We have to get back to our message. We have to focus on jobs. The best thing we can do for social justice is to create good jobs.”

All those little sub-groups in the party must understand, Schoen said, that there never will be “a perfect candidate.”

“The only perfect candidate is yourself,” Schoen said. “We can have our debates and differences but at some point, we have to fall in line.” 

That’s an old-fashioned party discipline that many believe doesn’t exist anymore. Many, including Martin, said that the party must acknowledge that many younger voters are more interested in specific issues, not party politics. The party, he believes, must show its support of many of those issue-oriented groups.

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The party’s problems are many. But all DFLers needed for motivation, it seemed, was a simple mantra: “Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.”