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Swanson decision sets off mad scramble among Minnesota Democrats

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and Rep. Rick Nolan speaking to reporters during their Monday afternoon press conference.

It’s not as though things were settled for the Minnesota DFL when the sun came up on Monday.

The party was already looking at a contested August primary for governor, with its newly endorsed candidate Erin Murphy facing off against U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.

But then things got even more unsettled. At a press conference convened in a downtown Minneapolis restaurant overlooking the IDS Crystal Court, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sat side-by-side with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan to announce that the rumors were true. They too would be running as a ticket in the DFL primary for governor.

Suddenly the DFL was making the Minnesota GOP seem like the picture of unity. The Republicans, after all, only had two tickets vying for the party’s nomination in the August primary.

Yet Swanson’s entry in the race was especially disruptive, and not just because she is a proven vote-getter and Nolan is well-known across the state, having served two different stints in Congress. With her decision, Swanson created another open statewide elected office, a vacancy that could set off a domino effect among current and former politicians.

Former Attorney General and Swanson mentor Mike Hatch has already filed to run for the job (though he also said he’d withdraw if someone else “qualified” files), and Rep. Keith Ellison is also expected to run for the post, which would leave his seat in Congress open for a profusion of prospective candidates, all of whom will have make their decision to do so before Minnesota’s candidate filing deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday. (UPDATE: Ellison did file for attorney general shortly after noon. State Rep. Deb Hilstrom also entered the DFL primary for the office earlier in the morning)

All of which means that coming out of their convention — a time when Republicans were having a press conference to introduce their endorsees and Tim Pawlenty was touring the state — Democrats were still trying to figure out who is running for what, and facing the prospect of having contested primaries up and down the ballot.

Contested primaries are bad. Unless they’re not.

Conventional wisdom is that contested primaries are bad for the party. In Rochester on Saturday, DFL state chair Ken Martin said the party should be focusing on the GOP and preserving money and good will for that fight.

But there is no clear evidence that contested primaries are necessarily bad. Current Gov. Mark Dayton not only bucked his party in 2010 and defeated their endorsed candidate, but he won the office. Rudy Perpich followed a similar path. And back in 2006 when she first became attorney general, Swanson pulled off the same feat. Somewhat ironically, Dayton endorsed the DFL’s endorsed candidate — Murphy — on Monday.

Former Attorney General and Swanson mentor Mike Hatch has already filed
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Former Attorney General and Swanson mentor Mike Hatch filed to run for his old job on Tuesday morning.

The endorsement is certainly an advantage. Many voters stick with the endorsement as a means of keeping the party influential. And the endorsee is given access to valuable party apparatus: voter lists, field operations, fundraising infrastructure.

But most of those bucking the endorsement have their own organizations and enough fundraising oomph to overcome some of the party’s official help. And Minnesota’s election calendar provides adequate time between its Aug. 14 primary and the Nov. 6 general election for both parties to coalesce behind their respective nominees.

Still, the narrative Monday among a lot of political people and the media was various versions of “DFL in Disarray.” Not surprisingly, Republicans seemed to enjoy the spectacle, especially since it drew attention away from their own version of disunity. As Pawlenty flew around the state making press appearances, Johnson said he would travel in an old Jeep, underlining his suggestions that Pawlenty thinks he can win by outspending rivals.

GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate
Jeff Johnson

On Tuesday, Johnson seemed to acknowledge that his party wasn’t clear of chaos, either, and called on Pawlenty to drop out to clear the way for a single, endorsed GOP candidate: himself.

“The DFL is in complete disarray and grassroots Republicans are united around a candidate who can appeal to every faction of the party, including the new voters Trump brought out in 2016,” Johnson said. “With a united Republican party in the best position to win the governor’s office in many years, it’s time for Tim Pawlenty to do what’s best for Minnesota and the conservative cause and end his primary campaign for governor.”

For his part, Pawlenty has said he thinks primaries are healthy. “I think going forward it is going to be healthy for the political process and discussion in Minnesota to have a broader and larger group of people weigh in on who they want their candidates to be,” he said. “I think that would have a healthy, balancing effect on the political discussion in Minnesota.”

So much unity

If the purpose of political conventions is to arrive at a single candidate for major offices — to unify after months of disagreement, to avoid costly and perhaps politically damaging primary elections — it is hard to call either the DFL or GOP conventions a success.

But at least the Republicans knew going into their weekend in Duluth what the outcome would be: a primary between former Gov. Pawlenty and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. Johnson has been pursuing the endorsement for months, if not since he lost the general election in 2014. Pawlenty, claiming the “cake has been baked” when it came to the endorsement process, opted out of the contest.

DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Erin Murphy
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate
Erin Murphy

DFLers, however, had some hope — a small-but-measurable one — that they could unite behind a single governor candidate, at least before they actually met for three days at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester. Practically, that would have happened only if Walz and Flanagan had gathered 60 percent support. Walz was the only one of the main three candidates who had refused to take the pledge to stay out of the governor’s race had someone else won the party endorsement.

While Walz won a plurality of delegates’ votes on the first ballot, he faded after that, and a seemingly desperate strategy with third-place balloter Rebecca Otto to urge a “no-endorsement” also failed.

So Walz didn’t even wait for state Rep. Erin Murphy to be endorsed before gathering his supporters at an outdoor plaza rally to declare that he would run regardless of what was happening inside the hall. Murphy’s next-day pick of state Rep. Erin Maye Quade to be her lieutenant governor could be seen as a way of strengthening her position among Twin Cities progressives for that primary battle with Walz and Flanagan.

A case of the Mondays

Walz and Flanagan did as promised when they filed for office at 10:30 a.m. Monday. But then rumors that had started at the convention — that Swanson was looking to team up with retiring Nolan to file for governor instead — were reported by Minnesota Lawyer.

Swanson had previously considered entering the governor’s race but decided to stay put and filed to run again for Minnesota attorney general on May 31, the day before the DFL convention began. The convention itself went less than well for her. On a first ballot against Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan, Swanson took just 52.2 percent of the vote. It was a majority, but not nearly the 60 percent needed for an endorsement — and not what a two-term DFL incumbent would normally be expected to win.

Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Matt Pelikan

Before a second ballot could be conducted, DFL Chair Ken Martin announced that Swanson would no longer seek the endorsement. Shortly after that, the convention endorsed Pelikan by acclamation.

At the Monday press conference, Swanson was asked why she dropped out so quickly. She said she was asked to make pledges — including one to take guns away from police officers — and refused all such commitments.

She said she spoke with Nolan Saturday and met with him and his wife Mary on Sunday. “It was a request that was too compelling not to accept,” Nolan said of the offer from Swanson.

Her announcement gave new meaning to the phrase “hastily called.” Some reporters got phone calls informing them about the event; some never did; and many searched between two downtown Minneapolis hotels — many in the media were told only that the presser was at a Hilton — for the right one (it was the Marquette, for those keeping score).

Swanson and Nolan portrayed themselves as a problem-solvers and claimed they weren’t running against other tickets but “for Minnesotans.” As Walz and Pawlenty have done in recent weeks, Swanson spoke of a co-governing partnership with her lieutenant governor pick. “We’ve got big problems facing the state of Minnesota and we need all hands on deck,” she said.

Soon after, Walz and Flanagan issued a statement: “We welcome any newcomers to this race,” it began.

Otto here

Another rumor flying around after the convention — this one false — involved Otto. She left the race Saturday with a cryptic statement that she and her running mate Zarina Baber would take the rest of the weekend to consider what to do. Would she renege on her pledge not to run in someone else was endorsed? Would she run under a third-party banner? Would she file for her current job of state auditor?

Fake news, she called it. “In this 24-7 news cycle and the fast paced nature of the convention due to the electronic voting, fake news has abounded,” she said. “To be clear, today I am announcing that I am suspending my campaign for governor.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 06/05/2018 - 10:53 am.

    “She said she was asked to make pledges — including one to take guns away from police officers —”

    Had zooks, so the rumors are true. Democrat conventions really do have three rings.

  2. Submitted by Greg Laden on 06/05/2018 - 11:00 am.


    You’all are going to have to grasp the fact that Matt Pelikan is an impressive candidate and is the endorsed DFL candidate. He’s quite impressive.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 06/05/2018 - 11:28 am.


      No, I don’t.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/05/2018 - 11:40 am.


      He’s five years out of law school. He is an absolute clown. The fact anyone voted for him is a testament to how clueless and out of touch the convention attendees are.

      We’re gonna lose AG along with governor.

  3. Submitted by Sheila McGinley on 06/05/2018 - 11:22 am.

    Business as usual for the DFL

    As usual, the DFL is in shambles. No wonder young adults are disillusioned/disenchanted with the old guard DFL. There is no unity, no strategy, only ambition and self-interest. Three rings, indeed.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/05/2018 - 12:41 pm.

      And If

      There were no DFL primaries, the criticism would be that they all just march in lockstep, with orders from on high, stifling any and all dissent, and they have no imagination, and only a few hundred people choose their candidates instead of thousands of Minnesotans who don’t have hours to devote to caucuses and conventions.

    • Submitted by David LaPorte on 06/05/2018 - 02:39 pm.

      Why does the DFL hold all of the statewide offices?

      The DFL has done fairly well, for a party that’s as dysfunctional as you claim it to be. Or are the Republicans worse?

      Not that the DFL couldn’t do better. I watched some of the convention on live stream. They had a had multiple votes on the length of bathroom breaks that must have lasted 30 minutes and ended up back where it started, with people still complaining.

      Personally, I think that both parties should dump the caucus -> convention system, which favors activists, and move the primaries to the Spring, like the vast majority of other states. The party endorsements don’t mean much and more people would get to participate in the decision about who runs. Which will happen this August, but a fair amount of time will have been lost.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/05/2018 - 03:01 pm.

      And so I suppose

      the young adults are attracted to the new, fresh ideas of Johnson and Pawlenty? Pull-ease.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2018 - 12:49 pm.

    Identity politics finally collapses, but it ain’t pretty

    When a Party doesn’t have a clear and compelling platform, and it’s only objective is to win the immediate election, you can expect this kind of disarray when things get really challenging. Instead of rallying around a liberal cause or agenda, they’re trying to figure out which personality they want to rally around… and THAT’S the problem. That spectacle by the way tends to alienate voters.

    Democrats need (and those covering them) need to stop being preoccupied with process and start developing an agenda their candidates will support and promote. It’s the absence of that agenda, or even any serious discussion of the an agenda, that has created this crises. Everyone is talking about the candidates, but no one is talking about what the candidates want to accomplish when they get elected. That also tends to alienate voters.

    Hopefully, this messy process will eventually produce a consensus around a liberal candidate that can energize voters, and start moving the State in a constructive direction. It’s worth a try.

    So let’s stop talking about who’s announcing their races, and start talking about who and what all these candidates actually represent and what they what they want to do. So you filed… bully for you. Now tell me what kind of Governor you want to be, and what direction you think MN should go towards.

    • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 06/06/2018 - 08:01 am.

      Exactly so …..

      …. and that is why Faith in Minnesota developed its own platform of issues to benefit minorities and working people, formed as strong a delegation as possible (11% of the delegates), and dialogued with the candidates before the convention without throwing their support to anyone beforehand. The goal is to identify and support a candidate who will support such a truly progressive platform not only in the campaign, but also once elected.

  5. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 06/05/2018 - 01:59 pm.

    only one

    There was only one candidate at the convention that attacked their opponent: Mr. Pelikan. Although I am a strong Dem, I would never vote for his candidacy.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/05/2018 - 03:46 pm.

    Just asking…

    When Mr. Nolan retired he said that ” the main factor in his decision was a desire to spend more time with his family.”

    How can he spend more time with his family and still undertake the rigorous schedule, demanding job description and huge responsibly of being LT Governor?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/05/2018 - 05:03 pm.

      Family Matters

      Whenever a politician or professional athlete says they want to spend more time with their family, you can be sure of one thing: that is not the real reason.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 06/06/2018 - 10:41 am.

      Thanks for the humor

      Lt Governor is a perfect job for semi-retirement

  7. Submitted by ian wade on 06/05/2018 - 03:50 pm.

    I’m amused by the angst over a Swanson/Nolan ticket.

    Coupled with Walz/Flanigan, I see it as two very solid choices going into the primary.

  8. Submitted by ian wade on 06/06/2018 - 02:59 pm.

    Matt, Nolan won’t be the Governor.

    I understand your position and frankly, I’m not happy about his take on mining either, but I’d also point out that Mills probably would have been elected had Nolan not expressed some advocacy towards mining up there.

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