Delegates to the 2018 DFL convention in Rochester were asked to choose between voting with their heads or voting with their hearts.
They ultimately — after six ballots — chose their hearts.
State Rep. Erin Murphy will carry the party’s endorsement into the primary election Aug. 14. That came after the St. Paul resident outlasted first state Auditor Rebecca Otto and then U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. She won not only the party’s label of approval but the party apparatus of field offices, field agents, voter lists and other resources.
“It is no time for tippy toe politics,” she told the more than 1,300 delegates Saturday. “Minnesotans demand and they are asking more of us.” Murphy sought to turn her attention not to a DFL primary but to the person she expects will be the nominee of Republicans, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
What Murphy didn’t win was an uncontested primary. After dropping out after seeing the trend to Murphy on the sixth ballot, Walz and his running mate, Peggy Flanagan, told a post-election rally outside the Mayo Civic Center that they would take their campaign to the primary.
Walz, who has won a south Minnesota congressional district won by a Democrat only twice in a century, billed his campaign as one that could win in a post-Trump state. Not only could he appeal to disaffected Democrats in rural Minnesota, he had good support in the Twin Cities as well. That support was only strengthened with the addition of Flanagan, well-liked among progressive DFLers in the Cities.
He gave his convention speech with a map of the state behind him, one displaying the red swaths of the state won by GOP members of Congress. Only he and Flanagan could run and win statewide, Walz said. “I ran in 2006 because George Bush kicked some students out of a rally and I got pissed off,” Walz said. “I’m pissed off again. But this time I’m bringing a friend,” a reference to Flanagan.
Rebecca Otto made the case that the DFL shouldn’t endorse someone who’s chief appeal was to moderate voters. She claimed that the real story of 2016 was the tens of thousands of DFL voters stayed home. They need a reason to vote, she said. “We shouldn’t be the party of big money,” Otto said. “We should be the party of big ideas.”
Murphy took issue with Walz’s map. “Using a map that shows how we’re divided is a hateful message,” she said.
Pushing for an endorsement
State DFL Chair Ken Martin spent the convention trying to push the party toward an endorsement — something he said has happened for gubernatorial races for decades. But he also wanted to make sure that endorsed candidate ran alone in August.
Martin said that only four candidates for governor who entered primaries against endorsed candidates won those primaries. Of those four, only two became governor. What isn’t often mentioned is that one of those two is current Gov. Mark Dayton. The other was Rudy Perpich.
Martin told the Feminist Caucus Friday that the 2018 election represents “an existential choice” for the state and nation and that Minnesota was the epicenter. That’s because of its two U.S. Senate races, four nationally targeted U.S. House contests, an open governor’s race and the state House up for grabs.
While Democrats have done well in primaries in other states, especially states that have been controlled by Republicans, Martin warned against complacency. “Don’t fall into the trap the past is a prelude to the future,” Martin said. “Wave elections just don’t happen. We have to make them happen.”
A loss, however, would create complete control of state government by Republicans for the first time in 60 years. Not only would that give them control over policies like education, worker rights and women’s rights, it would give them say over redistricting. “We are a blue state in a sea of red.”
Republicans meeting this weekend in Duluth are also likely to have a contested primary; Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson won the party’s endorsement and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who did not seek the endorsement, is going straight to the primary.
“We can start the conversation about the general election while they are still fighting each other,” Martin said.
But that doesn’t appear to be happening, at least based on Walz’s pledge to his delegates. Martin, however, said Saturday evening that he plans to talk with party leaders and the unendorsed candidates before the end of candidate filing on Tuesday.
“Since I became chair in 2010 we haven’t lost a DFL-endorsed candidate in the primary. I vigorously will defend this endorsement. I believe in our party process…” Martin said. “Whoever decides to run in a primary should know that this is not your grandfather’s DFL anymore.”
Martin said he will be talking to the candidates “to remind them how important it is for us to truly unify, to avoid a costly primary that divides us and turns us inward.” Unlike Otto and Murphy, Walz did not promise to stay out of a primary if someone other than him was endorsed.
Murphy said she expects there will be a primary. And she said she will wait until Sunday to announce a lieutenant governor running mate. She said she delayed until after the endorsement in hopes that it could be a tool for uniting the party and avoiding a primary. “I will be reaching out hope to have conversations with the others who were in this race to see if we can find our path forward to a unified ticket and unified effort to go forward and forestall that primary,” she said.
Attorney general upset
The convention had a first run of drama before noon, when the endorsement voting for attorney general took place and produced a result few expected. Incumbent Lori Swanson is seeking a third term after flirting with her own run for governor. While she was undecided about her plans, Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan jumped into the race. But unlike others who thought about running for attorney general — including reports that U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison would get in — Pelikan stayed in.
His speech to the convention focused on what he called three words — drugs, guns and antitrust. He said Swanson was lacking in all three. He accused her of being late to national challenges of the immigration ban and changes to net neutrality and lawsuits against opioid manufacturers. And he was introduced by the Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of the gun control group Protect Minnesota.
Swanson appeared on the stage but did not speak, instead letting a series of others offer their reasons for supporting her. One, former Attorney General Mike Hatch, criticized Pelikan’s lack of legal experience.
“You can’t be in the wading pool and think you can swim in the ocean,” Hatch said, perhaps a crack about the giant inflatable pelicans that the candidate displayed around the convention hall.
On the first ballot, however, Swanson tallied just 52.2 percent of delegate votes when she needed 60 percent for an endorsement. She then shocked the room by telling state DFL Chair Martin that she would no longer seek the endorsement of the party. He then called on the convention to endorse Pelikan by voice vote, which it did.
Swanson’s future plans are unknown. Martin said it is possible she enters the governor’s race or files for attorney general despite the endorsement of Pelikan. The candidates for attorney general were not brought to the stage to announce whether they would honor the endorsement decision of the convention as was done with the candidates for governor.
“I was tired of speculation and the game of musical chairs in St. Paul — who’s in, who’s out, what position are they seeking,” Pelikan said. “I don’t want to spend time speculating on what she’s going to do. I want to focus on how we can have a true progressive attorney general and make a difference for both equal rights and economic opportunity.”
But the vote, and the shape of the governor’s balloting, indicated the leftward tilt of this convention. Murphy had gained key endorsements in the weeks leading up to the convention from influential progressive organizations, including the ISAIAH offshoot, Faith in Minnesota.
The party estimates that half of the delegates are new to the process and are attending their first state convention.
Walz won the first ballot but it was closer than expected, with Walz getting 41.5 percent of the votes, Murphy 39.6 percent, and Otto 18.5 percent. Otto stayed in for a second ballot but lost support and dropped out before ballot three.
Murphy benefited much more from Otto’s decline than Walz did, claiming two-thirds of the Otto voters who switched. That vaulted her into first place at 47.1 percent, with Walz falling to second with 45.3.
With just the two front-runners left, ballot three boosted Murphy past 50 percent but still short of the threshold need to win the endorsement. It was before the next ballot that things got interesting. Cheers went up from Walz delegates as he walked into the room, holding hands aloft with Otto. Was it an endorsement? No, said Walz. Both candidates were uniting to call on delegates to vote for a no endorsement and allow all candidates to contest the primary.
It didn’t work. Ballot four pushed “no endorsement” to just under 40 percent but Murphy stayed over 50 percent. Ballot five saw both Murphy and “no endorsement” grow stronger but a stalemate was becoming obvious.
Murphy’s team kept pushing for an endorsement. “We must reject cynical politics that seek to silence our voices. We need to unite to keep our state blue in November,” she tweeted. “A primary does not benefit the people of our state. An endorsement now does. Let’s do our work for the people of Minnesota.”
In response to a question from a delegate, Martin made an impassioned plea for an endorsement. Without one, the party must stay on the sidelines until after the primary on August 14. “Our state party, our coordinated campaign, all of our field offices, field organizers and others would not be doing work through the summer months on this governor’s race,” Martin said.
“We only have 156 days until the election,” he said. “We can’t wait August 15 to start taking on Tim Pawlenty and the Republicans. Let’s work through this, let’s slog through this, let’s endorse a candidate and come out of this convention unified DFLers.”
That seemed to have an effect. The last balloting of the day pushed Murphy to 58.7 percent, a sign that her victory was likely on the next ballot or the one following that.
Walz seemed to concede with a statement from himself and Flanagan that read: “The best news is that Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center this weekend was full of the energy we need to win and we’re excited for 500,000 DFLers to have their voices heard. Let’s be clear, Democrats will leave Rochester united in our values. But the robust debate on who can best deliver a progressive message and win in November will continue.”
He then took his delegates from the floor and held a rally outside the civic center and told Martin that he was withdrawing. The convention delegates were then asked to endorse Murphy by acclamation, which they did.
What will Otto do? She withdrew with a cryptic statement, that she and her lieutenant governor pick Zarina Baber would “take the weekend to think about this.” Martin said he hadn’t talked to Otto but called her a good supporter of the DFL and thought she was keeping open the option of running if the convention ended without an endorsement. She had earlier pledged not to run if one of the others was endorsed.
But she also told one of the two candidates seeking the endorsement today for state auditor — Julie Blaha — that she would not be running for that job again. The other DFL auditor candidate is Jon Tollefson.
On Friday, delegates did as expected and endorsed incumbent U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. It was slightly easier for Klobuchar, who was unopposed, while Smith won easily but had to go through a process with three other candidates — Ali Ali, Richard Painter and Nick Leonard. The convention also endorsed Secretary of State Steve Simon for another term.