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Photobombs, cookies and (so many) candidates: Recapping the wildest day in Minnesota politics, like, ever

How quickly has the political landscape changed? So quickly that least two races that were once considered sleepy suddenly became two of the wildest races in the election. 

Rep. Keith Ellison speaking with members of the press on Tuesday after filing for attorney general of Minnesota.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

It was like opening day of baseball season, but for political junkies.

Tuesday marked the last day candidates could file with the Minnesota secretary of state to run in the Aug. 14 primary. And people who care (too much, perhaps) wanted to be there to watch, to gossip, and sometimes to actually file for office.

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It was nine hours of politics, a day when nearly all of the rumors came true. At one point, some members of the media wanted to test the zeitgeist by starting a rumor that Jesse Ventura would run for something. Anything.

He didn’t. But just about everybody else did.

Lori Swanson became the first domino to fall when she decided to run for governor, with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan as her lieutenant governor.

Then speculation centered on U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison running for attorney general. That happened. But what about former Attorney General Mike Hatch, state Rep. Deb Hilstrom and former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman? All of them also filed to run for AG.

Would state Rep. Ilhan Omar run for Congress from the DFL-heavy 5th District? She is. What about Sen. Patricia Torres Ray? Her too.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar filing for the U.S. House seat
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Ilhan Omar filing for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Keith Ellison.

But what made Tuesday even more intriguing was that candidates who didn’t even have time to get into the rumor cycle showed up, put their money down and signed their name to run for office. By the end of the day, 90 (!) new candidates had filed through the Election Center.

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion almost slipped in and out before he was noticed by MPR reporter Brian Bakst. A media scrum quickly ensued, and Champion — whose District 59 covers much of downtown and north Minneapolis — reported that he was a candidate for Ellison’s seat in Congress.

Also running in the 5th Congressional District are former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Jamal Abdi Abdulahi. Frank Drake — who was the Republican challenger to Ellison in 2016 — also filed again, this time as a DFLer. Former Minneapolis City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee was in, then withdrew, which means she’s out the $300 non-refundable filing fee.

Johnson Lee had a good reason, though. She decided to file for the soon-to-be open seat on the Hennepin County Board now held by Linda Higgins.

Getting in just before the doors were closed were a pair of candidates with prominent DFL names: Minneapolis School Board member Kim Ellison, who is Keith Ellison’s ex-wife; and former state Sen. Julie Sabo, whose father — Martin Olav Sabo — held the seat prior to Ellison for 28 years.

Former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher filing for CD5.

And after some prophecies were fulfilled and one was dashed — that former state Rep. Ryan Winkler would run — an entire chapter of Minnesota political history showed up. That would be longtime state Sen. Bob Lessard, the co-namesake for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Though Lessard had planned to run as a third-party candidate, the 2,000-signature requirement would be daunting, so he ended up filing as a Republican.

Small talk and photobombs

So much happened that it was hard to recall that the day started with a pair of gubernatorial tickets filing for office … at exactly the same time.

The DFL-endorsed ticket of Erin Murphy and Erin Maye Quade had just finished signing up when they turned around and made small talk with Republican ticket Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Fischbach. Both Republicans introduced themselves to Maye Quade, whom they had not yet met. Then they filed.

State Rep. Erin Maye Quade and state Rep. Erin Murphy
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
DFL-endorsed gubernatorial ticket state Rep. Erin Maye Quade and state Rep. Erin Murphy speaking to the press outside the Minnesota Capitol on Tuesday.

The morning also saw Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt bring nearly his entire team of candidates in for a team photo on the steps of the State Office Building before the last of them filed for office. Daudt, something of a political junkie himself, hung around to watch. He listened in on Ellison’s scrum and inadvertently photobombed Torres Ray’s press conference, exiting the elevator behind her as she explained why she was running.

That hallway press conference had barely ended when Margaret Anderson Kelliher showed up, causing the media scrum to rapidly shift to the filing counter.

Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking to the press at the state Election Center after filing.

And all that was after Hatch was among the first in the door of the Secretary of State’s office to file for his old job as attorney general. It turned out that Ellison’s interest in the gig didn’t exactly clear the field of DFL candidates, though Hatch did say he’d drop out if a better candidate filed. He then mentioned a series of names, none of which were “Keith Ellison.”

On Wednesday morning Hatch told MPR that he will withdraw from the race.

Decision time

How quickly did the 2018 Minnesota primary change over the last 72 hours? At least two races that were once considered sleepy — with well-placed incumbents and no real challenges — suddenly became two of the three wildest races in the election. After Swanson went from being likely to be re-elected as attorney general to a candidate for governor, six new candidates stepped into the race for AG.

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion

And because one of those candidates was Ellison, eight new DFL candidates filed for his current congressional seat.

And because one of those candidates was state Rep. Ilhan Omar, nine new DFLers and one new Republican filed to run for her DFL House seat in District 60B.

Two themes were echoed among the DFL candidates who decided to jump in the fray. First, that it was good for the party to have lots of candidates in the primary. And second, that they had just gone through a stressful few days, since they had to make a decision to run in hours rather than weeks.

“I kissed my husband goodbye on Monday morning and said I promise I won’t file for Congress without talking to you first, thinking it was a joke,” Anderson Kelliher said of the timing. “By the end of the day it became a reality.”

Champion, who said he first checked with friend and fellow senator Jeff Hayden to see if he planned to run, said he had lunch with his wife on Tuesday, just a few hours before filing. One of the things they discussed was how one of their children was going into his senior year in high school. The campaign would disrupt his summer.

The timing was less shocking for many of the candidates because of Swanson’s earlier interest in the governor’s race. Ellison, for one, had thought about attorney general months before, and his not-at-all-secret interest caused many DFLers to think about seeking his seat.

Still, many of the same politicians gave up on those thoughts when Swanson dropped her bid for governor in the winter.

“I’ve thought long and hard about this,” Ellison said. “In fact since the election I’ve thought of nothing else. This was a great weight. But I decided this morning that the right thing to do is not seek comfort and security and to do what the dictates of my conscience are telling me.”

Ellison didn’t endorse a successor but later in the day picked up his own endorsement, from Gov. Mark Dayton, who opted for Ellison over the candidate who had actually been endorsed by the DFL on Saturday, Matt Pelikan.

Troll house cookies

After all that, it was up to the most-prominent non-candidate to put a exclamation mark on the day. State Auditor Rebecca Otto had been a candidate for governor and survived two ballots at the DFL convention before withdrawing. On Saturday, she said she would take the weekend to decide her next step. On Monday, as rumors swirled about what her next step would be — that she would run as a third-party candidate; or that she would run for her current job — Otto issued a statement condemning fake news and saying she would run for nothing.

Yet there she was on Tuesday, entering the election center with a small entourage not long before the office was set to close. The media scrum followed, packing into the office’s small lobby. Otto then stood at the desk, paused for effect, and reached into her bag.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Auditor Rebecca Otto smiling after delivering cookies to the Election Center staff.

Was it a filing form? A pen? A lock of Jesse’s hair? Nope. It was two boxes of cookies, which Otto presented to the election office staff, assuring them that they hadn’t been purchased with campaign funds.

She laughed and, satisfied that she had successfully trolled the press corps, walked back to her office.