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Amid governor’s race shake-up, Rep. Keith Ellison considers attorney general run

Ellison’s interest in the attorney general job has been public record for some time.

Lori Swanson’s entry into the governor’s race gives Rep. Keith Ellison another opening for the attorney general gig that fired him up just a few months ago.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

The aftermath of the DFL’s convention in Rochester may be creating turmoil at the top of their ticket, but it’s also creating unexpected opportunities further down the ballot: with Attorney General Lori Swanson making a last-minute bid for governor, 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison is seriously considering running for her post, according to multiple sources.

If he goes forward, Ellison would immediately elevate an attorney general race that, to this point, was considered sleepy — and set off what could be a crowded and contentious battle to succeed him in the 5th District.

On Saturday, Swanson failed to get the party’s endorsement for attorney general after receiving 52 percent of delegates’ votes on the first ballot, leading challenger Matt Pelikan by just five points. She then withdrew from the endorsement contest, and the convention endorsed Pelikan, a Minneapolis attorney and longtime DFL activist who had billed himself as the “progressive alternative” to Swanson.

Ellison’s interest in the attorney general job has been public record for some time: when Swanson flirted with running for governor earlier this year, the Minneapolis congressman put out feelers for an attorney general bid. Stories circulated in the Capitol Hill press about Ellison being unsatisfied in Washington, and particularly at the Democratic National Committee, where he has served as vice chair since February 2017 after losing a bid to chair the party to Tom Perez.

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Publicly, Ellison denied rumors of his dissatisfaction and downplayed any friction at the DNC. But sources close to Ellison indicated the congressman, a practicing attorney before he arrived in Congress in 2007, viewed the attorney general post as one where he could be more effective in countering the agenda of the Donald Trump administration. In the Trump era, Democratic attorneys general have taken on added prominence as states file high-profile lawsuits against the administration on key issues like the travel ban and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Swanson’s entry into the governor’s race gives Ellison another opening for the attorney general gig that fired him up just a few months ago. If he jumps in, the DFL would likely get another primary fight: Ellison would be challenging Pelikan, assuming the endorsed candidate does not step aside. Former attorney general and Swanson ally Mike Hatch is also “weighing his options” and reportedly has not ruled out a run for his old job. The filing deadline for all races is Tuesday at five o’clock in the afternoon. (A spokesperson for Ellison did not comment on the record.)

Voters in CD5 would get another primary, too: multiple Democrats are likely to file for Ellison’s job if he vacates his seat. State Rep. Ilhan Omar is frequently mentioned by operatives as a likely candidate. State Sen. Scott Dibble and former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher are also mentioned as possible candidates.

A veteran congressman and nationally prominent Democrat, Ellison has never run a campaign for statewide office in Minnesota. He would be able to tap into a high level of name identification as well as a national network of potential campaign donors. However, Minnesota Republicans have waited for a chance to go head-to-head with Ellison in a statewide race, and national GOP groups — which passed on investing heavily in the attorney general race after Swanson decided against running for governor last year — may reconsider. The endorsed Republican candidate is former state legislator Doug Wardlow.

There is some uneasiness within the party about running a statewide ticket heavy on figures from the Twin Cities metro area, following state Rep. Erin Murphy’s endorsement victory in the governor’s race.

Some Democrats are also apprehensive about the prospect of a contentious primary to replace Swanson in the attorney general role and Ellison in Congress, during an election year when Minnesota Democrats are already battling to retain the governor’s mansion, hold two U.S. Senate seats, and pick up U.S. House seats in the suburbs while defending long-held House seats in Greater Minnesota.