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No, Minnesota Democrats did not choose ‘boring, conventional, and white’ in the primary

Instead of a victory lap for the Democratic old guard, Tuesday’s results instead looked like a rebuke of it: In key races around the state, primary voters selected young and diverse faces to pick up the party’s banner.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar celebrating her CD5 primary victory on Tuesday night.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

When the dust settled from Minnesota’s primary elections on Tuesday, at least one major national outlet had a read on the results: Minnesota Democrats, along with their brethren around the Midwest, had resoundingly decided to hand the baton to “boring, conventional, and white” men, according to Politico.

Based on the victory of Rep. Tim Walz — a six-term member of Congress from Mankato — in the DFL governor primary, along with the triumphs of veteran Democrats like Richard Cordray in Ohio and Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Politico’s David Siders concluded, “Democrats across the Midwest are opting for a conventional cast of technocrats and long-time public officials in the party’s first response to Donald Trump’s 2016 victories.”

But if you looked anywhere down the ballot in Minnesota, it’d be instantly clear that this take was obviously, hopelessly wrong. Instead of a victory lap for the Democratic old guard, Tuesday’s results instead looked like a rebuke of it: In key federal races around the state, from Minneapolis to northern and southern Minnesota, primary voters selected young and diverse faces to pick up the party’s banner, representing what observers anticipate is a new generation of DFL leaders.

And in two races where Democrats did select political veterans — the U.S. Senate special election and the open race for Minnesota attorney general — the winners stood out for their outspoken progressive views and the diversity they would bring to their offices.

Young, progressive candidates dominate in CD5, CD8

Tuesday’s biggest DFL rebuke of boring and conventional came in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, where nearly half of the 130,000-some primary voters preferred state Rep. Ilhan Omar, the 36-year-old freshman legislator who earned international recognition in 2016 for becoming the first Somali woman elected to a legislature in the U.S.

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Omar beat out four rivals for the nomination, including Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011 and was a top DFL rival to then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Anderson Kelliher, who drew 30 percent of the vote, emphasized her political experience and legislative know-how; Omar, meanwhile, energized grassroots progressives with her commitment to mobilizing voters in the district, and with her fealty to progressive policy points like abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The one-time refugee from Somalia got the backing of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off an upset victory over longtime Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in New York, and who figures to be one of these midterms’ most controversial figures. In a sign of where the party establishment is, Omar also got the official endorsement of CD5 Democrats, as well as Gov. Mark Dayton.

If Omar wins in November, as is expected in this heavily Democratic district, she will be one of at least two of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress. (The other is Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.) Like Rep. Keith Ellison before her, Omar could use the CD5 seat to build a national profile and join a vanguard of young progressives.

“We said, our district was ready for a bold vision,” Omar said at her victory event on Tuesday. “We said our district was ready for someone who has more clarity and courage to go to Washington. We said we were going to fight the politics of fear with hope.”

Democratic voters in northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth District also went with a photogenic young progressive: Joe Radinovich, a 32-year old former state legislator. By a safe, 17-point margin, he stood out in a five-candidate field, defeating state Rep. Jason Metsa, an Iron Ranger seen by some Republicans as the most electable Democrat in CD8, as well as former TV journalist Michelle Lee and North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy.

Joe Radinovich celebrating at his downtown Brainerd campaign headquarters
Steve Kohls/Forum News Service
Joe Radinovich celebrating at his downtown Brainerd campaign headquarters on Tuesday night.

A native of the Crow Wing County town of Crosby, Radinovich served one term in St. Paul and worked for the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board before managing the successful 2016 re-election bid of retiring Rep. Rick Nolan, and the successful 2017 campaign of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. He based his first run for Congress on a platform of single-payer health care, campaign finance reform, and a $15 an hour minimum wage — betting that they will be political winners in this blue-collar district that has trended Republican in recent elections.

In his upcoming general election match against Republican Pete Stauber — likely to be one of the most competitive U.S. House races in the country — GOP forces are already slamming Radinovich as a far-left liberal.

In a call with MinnPost, Radinovich said he didn’t think of himself as part of a new wave of candidates, but acknowledged there’s a generational shift at work this year.

“We’ve been lucky to have strong leaders here in the Eighth District in the past,” Radinovich said, “and I look forward to carrying that fight to Washington, D.C., on behalf of working people.”

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‘Generational change’

To progressive leaders in Minnesota, this fall will see general election candidates who not only look different from the usual, but who will sound and strategize differently, too.

Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, said, “you see candidates who are really speaking to younger voters, and people of color, and women in particular, all over the state, not just in urban areas or on college campuses.”

Dan McGrath
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Dan McGrath

He said Democratic primary voters gravitated to candidates with clear visions and platforms, citing Omar and Radinovich. “She is painting a vision that is much broader and frankly more exciting than what we often see here,” he said. “Joe Radinovich is a pretty different candidate than Rick Nolan. That says something about where Democrats are headed and what they’re looking for.”

To observers like Carleton College’s Steven Schier, these primary victories represent a clear changing of the guard for the Minnesota DFL. “I think you’re seeing generational change here,” Schier told MinnPost. “It’s safe to say it’s a more progressive, more multicultural face and agenda for the Democratic Party in the state.”

Tim Lindberg, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said that Tuesday was a relatively good day for upstart, progressive Democrats. “When you focus on old, white guys, you’re forgetting about all the other people who also won yesterday who are younger, progressive, nonwhite candidates,” he said, referencing Politico’s story.

“You can see in Radinovich, in the primary victories by him and a few others, that the progressive faction is growing,” he said. “It isn’t just an anti-Trump blip, and there’s sort of a positive push behind it. … You get the feeling that this progressive push has to do with a positive policy agenda. You don’t need to be super anti-Trump to say, ‘We need single-payer, or we need to legalize recreational marijuana.’ ”

Nationally, left-wing groups hailed primary victories — in particular, Omar’s — as the sign of a new wave of progressive leaders. Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, said Omar will be a “transformative, inclusive populist leader in Congress.”

The group MoveOn said, “Omar’s victory represents the future of the progressive movement.” It also said her victory was a declaration of progressives’ values, which stand in stark contrast to the president’s.

“This historic win should remind Democrats across the country that voters are looking for authentic candidates who will stand up to Trump, resist his attacks on our communities, and protect our freedoms,” MoveOn said.

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Other races

Beyond new faces in the Fifth and Eighth Districts, Democrats officially nominated other federal candidates in Minnesota who add to a diverse slate of candidates.

Angie Craig, a Democrat running for the second time against Republican Rep. Jason Lewis, officially became the DFL nominee on Tuesday with no opposition. That race, which Democrats will need to win to take control of the U.S. House, is rated a “toss-up” by most observers. Craig, a former executive at the medical device company St. Jude Medical, would be the first openly gay member of Congress from Minnesota.

In the First Congressional District, Democrat Dan Feehan did not face a competitive primary, and was nominated for a general election contest against Republican Jim Hagedorn. The 35-year-old former Barack Obama official and Iraq War veteran is closer to the center than other Democrats running for Congress, but is new to Minnesota politics and is making his first run for office here.

Minnesota Democrats also overwhelmingly chose U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to the seat vacated by Al Franken in January, by a 60-point margin over former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter. Smith is a veteran of DFL politics, having served Gov. Mark Dayton and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, but is just one of 23 women in the Senate. (Her GOP opponent, state Sen. Karin Housley, would be one of a handful of Republican female senators.)

Rep. Keith Ellison won decisively with 50 percent of the vote
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Rep. Keith Ellison won the DFL attorney general primary decisively with 50 percent of the vote.

In the attorney general race, Rep. Keith Ellison won decisively with 50 percent of the vote, beating out state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, and former Ramsey county attorney Tom Foley. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, would be the first Muslim and the first African-American to hold one of the state’s constitutional offices. A longtime chair of Congress’ progressive caucus, Ellison was a notable backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Ellison’s candidacy, however, has been called into question since the congressman’s ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, came forward before the primary with allegations that he had physically and verbally abused her during their relationship, allegations that Ellison denied.