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Why Minnesota’s Democratic House delegation unanimously supports Tina Smith for Senate in 2018

That Minnesota Democrats moved so swiftly to back Smith speaks to broad support in D.C. for Dayton’s decision.

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan on Tina Smith: “I think she’ll be a good, strong candidate, and a real asset to Minnesota in the Senate.”
REUTERS/Eric Miller

In the hours after Gov. Mark Dayton announced he would be appointing Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Al Franken, Smith’s future Democratic colleagues in the Minnesota congressional delegation rushed to warmly welcome her to Congress.

And they want her to stick around for awhile: In statements and in interviews with MinnPost, each of Minnesota’s Democratic members of Congress said they intend to support Smith as the party’s candidate in next year’s special election for this seat.

That Minnesota Democrats moved so swiftly to back Smith as the DFL’s long-term candidate for this seat speaks to broad support in D.C. for Dayton’s decision, acknowledgement of the challenges posed by once-in-a-generation election cycle, and a desire to avert drama in the party.

Minnesota’s Democrats in Washington emphasized the importance of retaining Franken’s seat, which was not expected to be in play until 2020, as the party also takes on a laundry list of other tasks: defending the governor’s mansion, keeping Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s seat, holding on to three battleground U.S. House districts while trying to flip two others, and recapturing control of the state Legislature.

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Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison, also the No. 2 official at the Democratic National Committee, was the first Minnesota lawmaker to say that he will be supporting Smith in the 2018 election. (Ellison had been rumored as a potential candidate for this seat, a possibility he quickly ruled out with his statement.)

“The way we keep that seat blue and in our hands,” Ellison said on Wednesday, “is we gather around Tina and help get her in here to finish Al’s term.”

“Trump is in the White House, man. We cannot afford to not maintain this seat. It’s just too close, it’s too dangerous. The Senate has enough problems maintaining what it has. A lot of Democratic seats have to be protected.”

That sentiment was echoed by 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum, who is an official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats. “We don’t have the luxury of not having our ability to hit the ground running, and she’s a fabulous candidate,” she said.

“It’d be my intention to be out there campaigning to get Tina elected.”

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan said he would absolutely support Smith in 2018. “That’s my candidate,” he said. “I think she’ll be a good, strong candidate, and a real asset to Minnesota in the Senate.”

Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson told MinnPost he will back Smith in 2018, and that he doubts there will be a challenge to her.

“She’s a good gal,” he said. “She seems to relate well to my constituents.”

A spokesperson for 1st District Rep. Tim Walz — a candidate for governor who has nevertheless been mentioned as a potential candidate for Franken’s seat — affirmed Walz will be supporting Smith in the 2018 special election. An aide to Klobuchar confirmed the senator intends to back Smith in the special election as well.

In the day since Dayton’s announcement, no Democrats have come forward to say they intend to compete with Smith for the DFL’s endorsement at the party’s state convention next April.

In the days after Franken said he intended to resign from office, some Democrats in Minnesota worried that sour feelings over Franken’s departure from the Senate, combined with fissures in the party that remain from the 2016 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, threatened to turn an endorsement contest for this seat into a roiling intraparty fight.

When asked about heading off a challenge from Smith’s left, Ellison — one of two Minnesota congressmen to endorse Sanders in 2016 — said, “If anyone is looking to me, they need to listen to me when I say I’m supporting Tina, and they need to support Tina as well.”

“That’s what’s in the best interest of the people of the state. I’m just asking people to set their personal ambition aside for the good of us all.”