Will Tim Walz solve the DFL’s rural Minnesota problem?

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Tim Walz speaking to reporters after filing to run for governor of Minnesota earlier this week.

The race for Minnesota governor gained a high-profile entry this week: Rep. Tim Walz, the Democrat who represents Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, announced he’ll compete for the DFL endorsement for governor.

Walz joins a field of declared candidates for the 2018 contest that includes State Auditor Rebecca Otto, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and State Rep. Erin Murphy. Walz, who is from Mankato, is also the first candidate from outside the Twin Cities metro area to declare his candidacy; pending any other additions to the field, he could wind up the most prominent candidate from greater Minnesota.

Walz’s rural, farm-country background is a key element of his candidacy: support for the DFL has been steadily eroding in areas outside the Twin Cities where it was once strong. Republicans in the state have seized on this trend, seeking to define the DFL as an urban party out of touch with the rest of Minnesota.

As a Democrat who has survived since 2006 in southern Minnesota’s 1st District — which has swing tendencies but generally prefers Republicans — Walz is making the case that he is the DFL candidate who can pick up support around the state, particularly in those areas where Democrats have not done well recently.

First, however, Walz is gunning for the DFL endorsement, which means he’ll have to court urban progressive activists who may not love his record. Can Walz pull off the balance and hold the governor’s mansion for the DFL in 2018?

A moderate and a progressive

Walz, a former high school teacher and football coach at Mankato West High School, ran for Congress in 2006 as a total political novice, unseating longtime GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht. Walz arrived in D.C. a member of an ascendant Democratic congressional majority, which was boosted two years later with the election of Barack Obama.

Though anti-Obama backlash returned Republicans to control of the House and Senate, and unseated fellow rural Democrats like former 8th District Rep. Jim Oberstar, Walz kept on winning, dispatching his GOP challengers even as 1st District voters selected Republicans for governor and U.S. Senate races.

Walz’s closest call came last year, when he defeated two-time GOP challenger Jim Hagedorn by under one point, or 2,547 votes. Trump, meanwhile, won that district by nearly 15 points.

That Walz has continued to find a way to win in this corner of Minnesota is a testament to his strength as a politician — he’s regarded as one of the best campaigners in the DFL — and his careful political record.

The congressman has staked out positions and taken votes that allow him to sell himself as both a moderate and a progressive.

On one side, Walz has been more supportive of gun rights than his Democratic colleagues, and has previously been awarded an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. In 2015, Walz broke with most of his party and joined the GOP majority in voting for legislation to add additional layers to the refugee screening process, a vote panned by many of his Democratic colleagues.

The congressional database GovTrack, taking into account a broad range of legislative activity, places Walz in the most moderate quarter of the House Democratic caucus.

But Walz also claims a 100 percent rating from pro-choice groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood, voted in favor of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, voted to pass the Affordable Care Act and has strongly criticized GOP attempts to repeal and replace the health care law.

Walz has also worked assiduously to shore up his bipartisan bona fides. A former full-time Army National Guardsman, and the highest-ranking enlisted service member to serve in Congress, Walz was elected this year as ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs panel, where he has cultivated close ties with Republicans over the years.

On the stump, Walz has a knack of winning crowds over with a folksy, unpretentious style. Ask many Democrats, and even Republicans, what they think of the congressman, and the first thing they’ll say: it’s hard not to like the guy.

Because of all this, Walz hasn’t made himself an especially appealing target to Republicans. GOP state Sen. Jeremy Miller, who has considered running against Walz before, told MinnPost last year that Walz is a “great politician, and I don’t know how else to say it. He can vote one way in Washington and come back home and spin it a completely different way and make it sound good.”

The great divide

The political divide between urban and rural Minnesota was on Walz’s mind in a phone interview with MinnPost on Monday, after he’d officially filed his campaign papers in St. Paul and then hopped a plane to D.C. for the congressional work week.

Republicans have peeled away support in longtime DFL strongholds by convincing voters that Democrats don’t listen to them or understand their issues. Debates on gun rights, agriculture and mining are just a few of the wedges that have hastened their losses, as urban Democrats vocally took positions that alienated their rural counterparts, and were quickly exploited by the GOP.

Particularly after 2016, Democrats around the state are hungry for a candidate who can speak greater Minnesota’s language and help the party recapture support it lost. Walz is positioning himself as the right person to take on that task — and the one of dismantling the rural-urban divide altogether.

“Those trying to divide the state along geographic lines, also on economic and racial lines, that’s not how we’ve become as successful as we are,” Walz said. “It’s a tactic, a way to win elections. I’ve watched this emerge, I’ve been concerned over the last eight years, it’s started to be pronounced.”

Walz’s 1st Congressional District spans the length of Minnesota’s southern border, from South Dakota to Wisconsin. Aside from the growing urban area of Rochester and the mid-sized cities of Mankato and Winona, it is largely rural farmland.

Walz says he plans to start by focusing on how advancements in the metro area benefit the rural areas he represents, and vice versa.

“Coming from a vibrant rural area like Mankato, investment in Twin Cities infrastructure is good for Mankato,” he said. “I’ve been with these mayors for ten years, they get it too.”

According to Tim Lindberg, a politics professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, Walz clearly has demonstrated skill in selling a Democratic message in his district, and could help the DFL do that statewide.

“Even though predominantly rural areas are represented by more Republicans than Democrats, it’s not the case that the rural divide is Democrat versus Republican,” Lindberg said. “In that sense, Walz has something there he can play upon to convince rural voters that divide isn’t as wide as it seems to be.”

Convincing urban Democrats

Many Democrats believe that Walz brings to the table a formidable recipe for general election success: rural appeal, political skill, a history of winning. The question is whether he can survive an endorsement process, or a potential primary fight.

It’s unclear, for example, how Walz’s relative friendliness with gun rights will play with the party’s progressive base, which vocally backs stringent gun control measures. Same goes for Walz’s pro-agriculture stances, which have led him to take several votes against Clean Water Act protections and Environmental Protection Agency regulations related to water use.

Guns and the environment are third-rail issues for the base, and potential dealbreakers in a primary. But Darin Broton, a St. Paul-based DFL operative, thinks that Walz’s virtues as a candidate will convince progressives to overlook parts of his record they might not like.

“Congressman Walz is a stellar campaigner, a stellar candidate and someone who understands how to win in tough, competitive districts,” Broton said. “There are always some members of the party who have a pure litmus test, whether it’s on guns, the environment, pick any other issue.”

“But I think a lot of folks see the big picture… If you think that Congressman Walz isn’t pure enough on guns, wait until you see what happens when you have Governor Daudt,” he said, referencing House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a potential GOP candidate for governor.

Bernie Hesse, a labor organizer in the south metro, echoed that sentiment. “In the metro, you’ll probably hear that he’s not progressive enough, but there’s enough people that know we’ve got to take the governor’s race or we’re Wisconsin, we’re toast,” he said.

Walz himself disputes the notion that he’s in the moderate lane on the DFL side. “I’ll make the argument that I’m pretty darn progressive,” he said, saying the progressive base will see that on the important issues. (Progressives generally do, for example, consider Walz a good ally on trade issues.)

Still, Walz pushed back a little on the partisan-base pandering that has come to characterize both parties’ endorsement contests.

“When we ask for purity we make it difficult,” Walz said. “I’m not going to concede the fact that I believe I’m progressive and I’ve championed DFL values. It’s how you talk about it. You can’t lead with your chin necessarily, it doesn’t mean you’re hedging, but respecting that folks may take it differently.”

One step at a time

For now, many DFL insiders consider Walz the de facto frontrunner in the governor’s race. That may or may not change should he be joined by another candidate, such as 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan or Attorney General Lori Swanson.

But Walz is moving to lock up support from influential Democrats around the state. Before Walz made his bid official, 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson reportedly announced his endorsement at a party dinner in his district. (Peterson confirmed on Tuesday he’ll be backing Walz.)

“The congressman has a good amount of steam at this point,” Broton said, “at this point, you could probably classify him as being the front-runner. But Democrats are fickle people.”

In any event, Walz has a slog ahead of him — a long year of campaigning before the endorsement contest, which he’ll have to balance with his duties in D.C., including his new position running the Democratic end of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Republicans didn’t waste any time attacking Walz after he announced his gubernatorial bid. Almost immediately,  GOP-aligned groups immediately slammed him as a “Washington insider” and a “Democrat socialist.” Privately, Minnesota Republicans admit that Walz is likely their biggest threat to winning back the governorship.

One step at a time was Walz’s mantra this week. He says he expects to get the DFL’s endorsement, but did not close the door on a primary challenge if he were to not get it.

“As Democrats we understand how critically important this election is. We have to have the strongest statewide candidate in the race. If it happens that way so be it,” he said.

“The focus now is getting to know Minnesotans and getting Minnesotans to know me,” Walz said, pulling into the garage of his office in the Capitol’s Rayburn Building.

“I want to be in coffee shops around Minnesota. My wife and my kids are all in. They’re going to get to see a lot of Minnesota over the next 18 months.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/29/2017 - 10:00 am.

    $15 min wage

    It will be tough for Mr. Walz to receive the DFL endorsement without embracing the $15 per hour minimum wage.

    Of course, if by some chance he does receive the endorsement, it will be tough to win the Governorship if he endorses the $15 per hour minimum wage.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 03/29/2017 - 10:51 am.

      Minimum wage is already $9.50 in Minnesota for large employers

      Plus inflation indexing to boost it regularly. I don’t think there is going to be as much desire to increase that by 50% as you do. Like you said, it isn’t a winning issue with the voters.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/29/2017 - 10:40 am.

    Walz

    Tim Walz is the DFL’s dream candidate. He is light years better than anyone else running. He will be elected governor if he is the nominee.

    Unfortunately, the DFL has a long record of endorsing terrible candidates, so I doubt Walz will get endorsed. Hopefully he will follow Dayton’s lead and ignore the endorsement process.

    • Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 03/30/2017 - 11:13 am.

      “…light years better than anyone else running.”

      I like Tim Walz. I worked on his first campaign, though I’m not in his CD.

      Since then, I’ve kept an eye on him and on his votes. I think he’d be a good candidate. I am not encouraged, however, by Colin Peterson’s endorsement. And Walz’s “most conservative quarter of DFLers” label is concerning. But I’ll listen to what he has to say.

      Rebecca Otto is not light years worse than anyone. Likewise, probably not Erin Murphy and possibly not Chris Coleman. So let’s not rush to judgment just yet.

      Choose credible sources for information (NPR/MPR and MinnPost come to mind). Meet the candidates and listen to them. Closely. Ask questions. You know the drill.

      As we have learned in the past few years, our choice of MN governor is a Very Big Deal.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/30/2017 - 12:22 pm.

        Light years

        Otto has two strikes against her as far as outstate Minnesota goes (three, if you include being from the metro). Her dissenting vote against mining leases several years ago and the legal action (and waste of taxpayer money) challenging the law letting municipalities use other auditors. She will do extremely poorly outstate. She really is light years worse than anyone else running. I honestly can’t believe she is in the race.

        Coleman and Murphy don’t have the baggage that Otto does, but are still urban liberals without much outstate appeal. Coleman does have a number of endorsements from outstate mayors, but he’s still not one of them.

        I’m not rushing to judgment in getting behind Walz. I have been watching the DFL fail miserably for nearly 30 years. I don’t need to meet them or listen to MPR – nothing any of them say is going to change the basic facts. One candidate has a proven record of getting elected in rural Minnesota. The endorsement by Peterson – who represents an even redder district – should be cause for celebration, not concern.

        It comes down to this – do you want Minnesota to look like Scott Walker’s Wisconsin? Because that will happen if the DFL carries on with business as usual. Remember, Mark Dayton was not even let into the DFL convention the year he got elected governor. We need to cut the crap and nominate someone who will win.

        Light. Years.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 03/29/2017 - 11:20 am.

    Problems

    Walz should make a great candidate, but it’s not clear whether the DFL will choose him. I see a considerable danger that in the process we may simply lose him as an outstanding congressman and also lose our excellent State Auditor Rebecca Otto: certainly we’ll lose at least one of the two.

  4. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 03/29/2017 - 11:33 am.

    Winning…

    The endorsement is one thing. That isn’t worth very much. No one who has won the endorsement, on their initial term, for a number of years has won a statewide election for governor.

    The gentleman who commented on the minimum wage is an example of why it is difficult to win the endorsement in the convention. Too many special interest with too many narrow topics.

    Walz is a very qualified candidate, mainstream enough to pick off independent and some Republican votes.

    Right now the insiders race has Kurt Daudt as the front runner for the Republican nomination for governor. Lot of the grandstanding that’s going into the current bills, most of which will be vetoed, is with his candidacy in mind. His caucus wants to make starving the elderly and the poor seem like a mainstream position. If you leave the details out and just say we offered solutions, it sounds reasonable.

    The trick will be to run a candidate that appeals to the entire state, seems like a reasonable,regular person, and emphasize his positions as the positions are really mainstream in the state. Republicans win a lot of races, but if their proposals went through a lot of her own Minnesota would turn against them rapidly. Medicaid is largely use by the elderly and poor in rural white Minnesota. 800,000+ people are on the ACA. Take away that insurance and see how popular the position is against the ACA. If you replace it with no insurance or strip down policies with absolutely no coverage, minimal medical coverage for women, and high deductibles you will have a rebellion.

    The trick will be an image and messaging. The Democrats are good with policy, not so good with the imaging and messaging of their positions.

  5. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 03/29/2017 - 12:08 pm.

    oday about the Westinghouse

    Reading today about the Westinghouse bankruptcy, which says much about the health of the nuclear power industry, I remembered a gloriously bipartisan piece touting the wonders of nuclear power that Tim Walz published with Eric Paulsen in the Star Tribune six years ago (easy to find by googling their two names and “nuclear”). According to them, nuclear power was all upside, no downside, and Minnesota was losing out by not getting on the roaring nuclear bandwagon. I would like to see Tim Walz speak with more realism about nuclear power and the sustainable alternatives before he becomes governor.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/29/2017 - 01:15 pm.

      Really digging

      I read what Walz had to say, and it doesn’t really match with your representation. He supports nuclear power. And a nuclear company went bankrupt. I’m left with a big “so what?”

      The bigger issue is the the purity problem with the DFL. Progressives are going to have to deal with some things they don’t like with Walz. Or they can insist on an urban liberal and have a diminished chance of winning the general election.

      • Submitted by Greg Gaut on 03/30/2017 - 10:10 am.

        I hope you read

        the story in today’s Strib about Westinghouse, which is not “a” nuclear company but “the” nuclear company. As the story makes clear, its failure casts doubt on the future of nuclear power since Westinghouse supposedly had some new ideas to make them somewhat more economically feasible.

        I will certainly support Walz if he is the DFL candidate, but the Walz/Paulsen intervention represented a moment of bad judgement which I wish he would clarify. After all, the governor’s office has much to say about both the environment and energy in Minnesota.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/30/2017 - 10:45 am.

          Again, so?

          He supports nuclear power. “The” nuclear power company went bankrupt years after he said this. I’m not sure why there is any reason to question his judgment.

        • Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 04/02/2017 - 08:34 am.

          Nuclear Future

          As I understand it, Westinghouse ran into severe problems with IMPLEMENTING their new ideas for building nuclear power plants. If you look up the history of the Westinghouse designed plants now under construction, you will find a morass of delay, cost-overruns and regulatory confusion. These are the issues that drove Westinghouse into bankruptcy. The fact that Congressman Walz is supportive of nuclear energy as a clean, economical source of electric power is much to his credit.

          DFLers, and progressives in particular, would do well to strongly support Congressman Walz in his bid to become governor.

    • Submitted by Richard Callahan on 03/29/2017 - 04:16 pm.

      Nuclear power

      Speaking of “realism”, as appealing as “sustainable alternatives” are they are not going to solve our climate change problem. They are too insignificant now and will grow too slowly to avert the crisis even if there were enough rare earth metals for PE cells and epoxy resin for turbine blades on the planet.

      Nuclear power is the only solution.

      Are you familiar with the emerging 3G and 3G+ reactors? That burn existing spent fuel? That are modular and can’t melt down?

      China is investing heavily in this new technology and leaving the US far behind.

      I’m with Walz on this one.

    • Submitted by Anne Morse on 03/29/2017 - 07:07 pm.

      Tim Walz for Governor

      As someone who worked hard in 2006 to help Tim Walz defeat Gil Gutknecht, I can say I have never seen a better campaigner. He’s also a truly stellar communicator, and honest to a fault. And, he has the most wonderful woman in the world for a spouse in Gwen. I continued helping Tim in his reelection campaigns, and came to know him well. So when the editorial he co-authored with Congressman Paulsen on nuclear power hit the racks, I found myself deeply disappointed, and asked for the opportunity to discuss it with him, A few days later I sat down with Tim and shared the truth as I knew it; that our future was not in the small, package nuclear plants that were being promoted at the time, but rather in renewable energy. Tim also shared what he knew to be true, and I came away with a few conclusions. He is a formidable debating opponent. His interest in supporting the new, package nuke technology, was grounded in a sense of urgency about the need to speedily reduce our carbon emissions. So good for him on that. And, that he took his lead on the benefits of this technology from the Secretary of Energy at the time, Steven Chu. Chu was definitely a brilliant physicist, but he was also steeped in the energy systems of old. What Chu wasn’t knowledgeable about was the potential of renewables to replace our old energy systems. And neither did Tim. He had a hard time believing that renewables would become as cheap, and thus as relevant, as we now know them to be. But honestly, he can’t be, as no one can, an expert in everything. But what was wonderful is that Tim took the time to hear my arguments. And, he has obviously let them inform his decisions, because today he’s a big advocate for wind and solar, and the economic opportunities they offer us today, and in the future. I want an elected official who can listen and learn, and that is exactly what I know Tim Walz to be.

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 03/29/2017 - 01:11 pm.

    It a word

    No. The identity politic n regulation everything including speech and behavior soul is in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. He will be rejected soundly.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/29/2017 - 03:24 pm.

    Al Davis

    My hunch is that, in regard to the 2018 race for governor, a lot of Democrats are adopting the philosophy of the late great owner of the Oakland Raiders: Just win, baby.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/29/2017 - 03:48 pm.

    Consider the alternative

    Do you want governor of the caliber of Scott Walker in charge of our state? In other words, someone who puts winning elections above the best interests of the state. Walker takes pride in LOWERING what people get paid and things like a healthy environment, so corporate titans like the Koch Brothers get richer and more control over politics of states across the country. Whether it be Daubt or another Republican, that is what you are likely to get, turning Minnesota into Wisconsin or even a state like Mississippi. I don’t think so.

    Walz is a man of principle. A former teacher, like Mark Dayton, he believes in making smart choices based on facts, not fears and delusions. He has credibility and has produced results for rural Minnesota, the part of the state the DFL needs to reclaim to put Minnesota’s history of progressive ideas back on solid ground. Trump is showing every day how bone-headed decisions end years of progress and put people’s well-being at risk. In fact, it is the rural parts of the state which are at most jeopardy from politics of the rich. Did you read today that a large share of farmers didn’t make money last year given that commodity prices are down – and Trump wants to start a trade war? Given how dependent we are on foreign trade, how does that help rural Minnesota. Urban billionaires like Trump and his billionaire buddies who try to buy elections around the country have no clue how difficult it can be to cobble together a decent income in rural Minnesota and if they knew, frankly won’t care one iota except around election time.

    Walz would get substantial votes in rural Minnesota – no question. And for metro area Democratic voters, he is issue by issue far superior to what any Republican offers.

    There is one party with Farmer in its name – and it most definitely is not Republican. And when it comes to Labor, for Republicans, that is virtually a dirty word. Pick a couple extra words for Republicans and it would be Executive and Investor.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 03/29/2017 - 05:24 pm.

    I have to laugh as I read folks who live in

    Twin Cities tell us country folks what we should care about. We haven’t been convinced by the NRA that our right to have guns is important, we grew up with guns. We haven’t been convinced by the Koch brothers that the DFL does not support mining and logging, we live it. The GOP didn’t sway our minds to the fact the DFL/IRRRB have neglected us, we see it daily up here. It not about what folks tell us, it is about what we see and live.

    It is not the politicians that need to change but the policies/platform of the DFL they support, that needs to change!

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/30/2017 - 03:19 pm.

      Talk About Elitism!

      Those out state folks you speak of are so elitist, they even tell us we can’t raise the minimum wage. They are so out of touch, they just don’t understand that the cost of living is higher here.

  10. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/02/2017 - 06:38 pm.

    Any chance that Rep. Walz

    Will do a Bob Dole and resign his present position so that he can “be in coffee shops around Minnesota. My wife and my kids are all in. They’re going to get to see a lot of Minnesota over the next 18 months.” 1st District citizens deserve a full-time opposition to President Trump. The 5th District already lost Rep. Ellison to the DNC, someone needs to do the job that they ran for.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/03/2017 - 04:37 pm.

      Could be worse

      Our friends in Wisconsin had the governor abandon them during his failed run for president. At least Walz will be in the state.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/04/2017 - 09:39 pm.

        My point exactly

        A member of Congress belongs in Washington D.C. outside of a recess, since that is where the work is done.

        Governor Walker’s approximately two month run was unfortunate for the people of that state.

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