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

Walz’s greater Minnesota bonafides make him an appealing candidate for a party that has seen its popularity slipping outside of the Twin Cities. But can he pass muster with the urban, progressive base?

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”