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Minnesota, meet your next U.S. senator: Tina Smith

The appointment continues the meteoric rise of Smith, who — until relatively recently — had been a consummate, behind-the-scenes operator.   

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith: “I am resolved to do everything I can to move Minnesota forward. I will be a fierce advocate in the United States Senate for economic opportunity and fairness.”
REUTERS/Eric Miller

It was the second time Gov. Mark Dayton introduced Tina Smith.

The first time was more than three years ago, when the two stood on a stage at a labor union headquarters and Dayton said that Smith, then his relatively unknown chief of staff and close adviser, would join him on the ballot as a DFL lieutenant governor candidate. “We will make a great team if we have the chance,” he told the crowd.

On Wednesday, Dayton introduced Smith again, this time as the person he intended to appoint to take the Senate seat now held by Al Franken, who is resigning over a sexual harassment scandal. “This final decision is mine alone,” Dayton said from the Minnesota Capitol. “It’s based entirely on my conviction that Tina Smith will be the best possible senator for the people of Minnesota.”

It’s a historic appointment, marking the first time two women will represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate at the same time. And it comes at a divisive time in American politics, as Congress reckons with polarization over President Donald Trump’s agenda and lawmakers across the nation grapple with a growing sexual harassment scandal.

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The appointment also continues the rapid rise of Smith, who just seven years ago was a behind-the-scenes operator in DFL political circles who rose to the lieutenant governor job and even considered running to replace Dayton when he leaves office in 2019. Earlier this year, Smith said she’d decided against running for governor. But now, she plans to serve out Franken’s abbreviated term and run next fall to take his place in the United State’s Senate. 

“Though I never anticipated this moment,” Smith said, “I am resolved to do everything I can to move Minnesota forward. I will be a fierce advocate in the United States Senate for economic opportunity and fairness.”

It will also be a major test for Smith, 59, who will step out on her own for the first time to establish her own agenda. Well known for her calm demeanor and close relationships among political insiders, Smith will now need to build a broad name recognition and tap those connections she’s been building over the years to raise the millions needed to run — and keep — the Senate seat in Democratic hands.

From business to state politics

Smith’s circuitous path to the Senate started early in her life, when she sought out a career in business instead of politics. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she first came to Minnesota in the 1980s, after graduating from Stanford University and getting an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. After working in marketing at General Mills, she eventually started her own marketing firm. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Smith got sucked into local politics, volunteering for Minneapolis DFL campaigns. She quickly rose within DFL circles and moved on to work on several statewide races, including Walter Mondale’s last-minute bid for the U.S. Senate in 2002 after the death of Paul Wellstone. Shortly after that race, she was recruited to be the vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, leaving that job in 2006 to serve as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s chief of staff and eventually run his campaign for governor in 2010.

“I was seen as a very successful second-term mayor and I give a lot of that credit to Tina,” Rybak said, adding that he rarely saw Smith without her phone pressed to her ear. “She’s always working on her relationships with people, including with people most other people would have given up on a lot earlier. She is just wired to assume good intentions and if not to somehow make it work.”

Those relationships have paid off over the years. On the advice of DFL donor Alida Messinger — also Dayton’s ex-wife — Dayton called up Smith in 2010 shortly after Rybak failed to win the DFL endorsement for governor. Sitting at a cafe in Minneapolis, the two talked strategy. Dayton had decided to skip the endorsement battle and head straight to the primary, and Smith saw a path to victory. The two hit it off, and he quickly appointed her as an adviser to his campaign.

After Dayton won, Smith led his transition and became his chief of staff. In that role, she was his lead on government reform projects and was critical in working with sports officials, business leaders and legislators to pass a proposal to construct a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. In 2013, Dayton put her in charge of lobbying legislators to pass a state subsidy for the expansion of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, a massive economic development project. The effort was successful, and she now leads the board overseeing the project. 

Ahead of the 2014 election, Dayton sought out Smith to run for lieutenant governor. He was in the midst of his first re-election campaign, and then-Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon said she didn’t plan to run again. Smith was initially reluctant — she’d never held public office before — but she ultimately joined the ticket and traveled across the state that year to campaign. They won that fall against Republican Jeff Johnson by more than five points. 

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Smith quickly transformed the role of lieutenant governor, which had lacked definition in the past, modeling it on the relationship between her mentor, Mondale, and President Jimmy Carter.

As lieutenant governor, Smith stepped out on economic development issues, speaking to corporate boards and businesses across the state. She was the administration’s lead on expanding paid parental leave to state workers. She also continued to be Dayton’s closest adviser and proponent of the administration’s proposals in St. Paul, sitting in on the late-night, closed-door meetings to work out budget deals with Republican and Democratic legislators. 

‘A continuous campaign cycle’

In the Senate, Smith will craft and defend her own agenda for the state. On Wednesday, she limited her comments on what she will do as senator, but she spoke broadly about the need for more economic opportunity for families across the state and fairness in the workplace for women. She talked about funding for public schools and early education and expanding health care coverage to more Americans. “I will take on this role in my own ways and in my own judgment and experience,” Smith said.

But as soon as she gets to work in the Senate, Smith will also have to start campaigning for the Senate. She’s on the ballot next fall, according to the process outlined under state law, and — if she decides she wants to stay — will be again in 2020, when Franken’s regular term is set to expire.

“She is going to be on a continuous campaign cycle, for the next year if not the next three years, as well as trying to balance the roles and the responsibilities in the U.S. Senate,” DFL operative Darin Broton said. “It’s a daunting task and it will be a grueling task, but it’s a great opportunity to combine the role of campaigning and being U.S. senator and making those relationships across the state.” 

Smith has already been traveling around the state as part of her job as lieutenant governor, giving her a head start on the campaign, Broton said. And already, her relationships with DFL groups are paying off: Various candidates and groups quickly lined up behind her as a candidate in 2018. Dayton threw his support behind her Wednesday, as did top DFL party officials, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and DFL groups like Emily’s List, which backs pro-choice female candidates across the country.

That suggests she won’t have major internal challenges for the seat, but Republicans are already eagerly recruiting candidates and crafting their message against her. Among Republican names who could potentially run for the seat: Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer and state Sens. Michelle Benson and Karin Housley. Both U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot next fall, joining a crowded ballot that includes an open governor’s race, congressional seats, constitutional offices and the entire Minnesota House. For national political groups, winning in Minnesota will be critical to holding power in Washington, D.C.

Already, local and national groups are casting Smith as a DFL political insider and a tax-and-spend liberal. John Rouleau, executive director of Republican campaign spending group the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, has been digging into Smith’s background since she was considering a gubernatorial run. He said she was part of an administration that proposed raising the gas tax and sales tax increases, and her association with groups like Planned Parenthood won’t do her any favors in areas in Greater Minnesota.

“The last thing Minnesotans want is another political insider,” he said. “It’s more clear than ever that the DFL hasn’t learned its lesson from 2016 and is more out of touch than ever.”

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Smith is also largely unknown, according to the Republican group’s polling from earlier this year. Of about 600 people polled, Rouleau said, 8 percent viewed her favorably, 4 percent unfavorably and 5 percent didn’t have enough information to answer. In all, 83 percent hadn’t heard of her.

National Republican Senate Committee spokesman Michael McAdams also cast Smith as someone who was “handpicked” by Dayton. “Minnesota voters deserve a Senator who will look out for their best interests, not another DFL insider handpicked by Mark Dayton,” he said in a statement.

It’s a criticism Dayton and other Democrats are sensitive to, but they dismissed the idea that Smith won’t have to work hard to win the backing of Minnesotans in 2018. Dayton said he simply “did what the Constitution of Minnesota instructed me to do.” 

“Anybody who knows the voters of Minnesota knows they can’t be told what to do,” Smith said. “My purpose is to go out and ask for those voters’ support.”

The fundraising task is also daunting, with some estimates suggesting Smith will need to raise between $10 and $15 million to run for the seat in November. But Rybak said few people in DFL circles know campaigns as well as Smith. She was pulled in to run Mondale’s last-minute campaign after Wellstone died, and for years she’s been the main person any serious candidate for office calls for advice. Near the end of the press conference, Smith warned that “I shouldn’t be underestimated.”

“If I weren’t confident, I wouldn’t be doing this.”