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Of attacks and undecideds: Where the Minnesota attorney general’s race stands

The campaign has defined the political cliché of “slugfest,” with Wardlow and Ellison each offering a steady stream of attacks against each other. 

Doug Wardlow barely responds to allegations that he has been just as political as Rep. Keith Ellison: “There is no one more political than Keith Ellison.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Give Doug Wardlow and his campaign advisers some credit: They fashioned a campaign strategy ready made for taking on DFL attorney general nominee Keith Ellison.

Wardlow’s once long-shot campaign has positioned him as the anti-politics politician, the guy who, he says, will play the AG job straight down the middle. Though the former one-term state representative is most comfortable on his party’s right flank and led a conservative public life before entering the campaign, it is Ellison who would bring politics into the state Capitol office of the AG, Wardlow asserts.

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Or as he said during a recent debate sponsored by KSTP: “There’s no one more political than Keith Ellison.”

Will it work? Back when the DFL was mostly ignoring Wardlow — the spring and summer of this year — its candidates for attorney general inadvertently fed into Wardlow’s narrative. Like Democratic attorney general candidates across the country, most of the Minnesota contenders pitched themselves to DFL voters as the one best suited to curb the legal excesses of President Donald Trump.

With Democrats in the minority in Congress, it was the state legal officers who had become the party’s highest-profile champions, fighting Trump policies on immigration, net neutrality, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, blocking 3D-printed firearms. And many were winning.

Ellison even gave up a safe seat in Congress, where he was building a national standing among the party’s progressive wing, to run for the job. “Everyone knows how ossified Congress can be nowadays,” Ellison explained to a small group of supporters in North Branch in July. “But I’m not running from Congress. I would be more than happy to return there. It was a tremendous honor. But I think about the fact that I can write a bill, introduce it, get 100 people to sign it and then still it doesn’t go anywhere. As attorney general I can actually do something.”

Ellison gave an example: He introduced a bill that would have prevented fast-food restaurants and other employers of low-wage workers from agreeing not to poach each other’s workers. The practice was allegedly a way to keep workers from seeking higher pay in a different job. Before his bill could get a hearing, however, the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts filed legal actions and won a consent decree to end such agreements.

“I think it would be more emotionally satisfying for me to feel like I’m actually doing something for the people I care about, rather than just drafting a bill and giving a speech.”

A political fight over being … political

Democratic AGs didn’t invent this strategy. Republican attorneys general frequently challenged Obama administration policies on the Affordable Care Act and immigration, including a pending lawsuit that seeks to have what remains of ACA ruled unconstitutional. Former Texas AG Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor, once said of his duties: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.”

Without commenting on those suits, Wardlow says he wouldn’t have joined them. He instead has tried to make the case that the office is overly politicized, and did so even before Ellison won a contested DFL primary. And he made it an issue before the revelation that Ellison’s former live-in girlfriend, Karen Monahan, had accused him of emotional and — in one instance  — physical abuse.

While Ellison denied the allegations and tried to respond without appearing to be attacking Monahan, the issue stuck around. Only two weeks ago did two events occur that allowed Ellison to come up for air: An investigation commissioned by the state DFL by an employment law specialist could not substantiate the allegations after describing a tumultuous relationship and breakup. And a court-ordered release of divorce files involving the dissolution of Ellison’s marriage with Minneapolis school board member Kim Ellison showed no allegations of abuse. Instead, records showed that Kim Ellison was suffering from depression and multiple sclerosis and may have physically abused her husband.

Keith Ellison’s campaign is now focused on those undecided voters, especially undecided DFL-leaning voters.
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull
Keith Ellison’s campaign is now focused on those undecided voters, especially undecided DFL-leaning voters.
Republicans have dismissed the results of the DFL investigation, pointing to the fact that the attorney who conducted the inquiry, Susan Ellingstad, has done legal work for the DFL and that other attorneys with her firm have donated to the party and its candidates.

It was always unlikely that any investigation that didn’t support Monahan’s allegation would be accepted by Ellison’s opponents. Instead, the audience for the investigation might be DFL voters concerned about voting for someone accused of domestic violence. Since the report was released Oct. 1, the DFL’s play has been to shore up support for Ellison among DFL-friendly voters he should have wrapped up the day after the primary.

Two strategies are at work to do that. The first is to secure endorsements from prominent women. Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was among the authors of an open letter titled “Without Reservation, We Support Keith Ellison” that addressed both their support for Ellison and their opposition to Wardlow. It also includes a review of the Ellingstad report and their concerns for Monahan’s embrace of conservative and Republican support leading up to the election. Ellison also appeared with former DFL candidate for governor Erin Murphy as well as LGBTQ leaders, labor leaders, gun safety advocates and legal community representatives. State Rep. Ilhan Omar endorsed Ellison in a video posted on the campaign website.

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The second piece of the strategy is to turn the spotlight back on Wardlow. Ellison and the DFL were slow to turn their attention toward the GOP nominee’s record, perhaps because they thought his right-leaning résumé was so clear and that Wardlow would run on that record. That delay allowed Wardlow to establish his nonpartisan strategy.

In their first high-profile joint appearance, a lengthy back and forth on the couch at TPT’s “Almanac,” Ellison was on the defensive over the Monahan allegations and seemed reluctant to be too assertive toward Wardlow.

The contrast between that and the candidates’ second joint appearance is stark. In a more traditional debate format, televised on KSTP and other stations across the state, Ellison met Wardlow’s allegations that the DFLer was too extreme with his own charges, fleshed out by DFL researchers between the two appearances.

Wardlow is a conservative Christian who voted as a conservative Republican during his one term in office representing a House district around Eagan. He has also been an attorney representing the national Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative response to the ACLU that takes on First Amendment cases for conservatives, especially religious conservatives. He helped defend a videographer who refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding, for example.

While he has accused Ellison of planning to use the office to assail Trump administration policies, a Wardlow campaign piece said he would “defend President Trump’s agenda in court.” More recently, he was recorded telling an audience at a GOP fundraiser that he planned to “fire 42 Democrats right off the bat and get Republican attorneys in there.” While assistant attorneys general serve at the pleasure of the boss, party litmus tests have not been applied by past officeholders and might be illegal.

DFL researchers also found a recording of a 2013 speech Wardlow gave to a tea party group that spoke of a “second, unwritten constitution” that should guide Americans, adding “you cannot have liberty without strong families. You cannot have liberty with marriage redefined to include homosexual marriage.”

Ellison and others say these examples are proof that Wardlow would not be the political agnostic that he claims, and he and the DFL have taken to hosting a series of press conferences to highlight different aspects of Wardlow’s record. “This idea that Mr. Wardlow doesn’t have any views on anything is simply not the case,”  Ellison said at the KSTP debate. “It is very clear he has a policy agenda. He just doesn’t want to say what it is and I think it’s fair for the people to know.”

Wardlow barely responds to allegations that he has been just as political as Ellison. “There is no one more political than Keith Ellison,” he said. “This is the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee. He still wants to maintain that office if he is elected attorney general. Those two positions are entirely incompatible.”

A stream of attacks

Despite his strength within the DFL and his national standing among progressives, Ellison is the candidate the GOP most wanted to run against. Running and winning in a state House district and then a congressional district dominated by the DFL, Ellison has long been free to be as liberal and progressive as he wanted. The first Muslim elected to Congress, he has been a progressive leader, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and a strong but ultimately unsuccessful candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee (he is currently deputy chair).

His activism predates his political career. Ellison was a black student leader at the U of M during law school and was a civil rights and defense attorney after graduating, including representing people accused of gang violence. He spoke at a rally in defense of Sara Jane Olson, a federal fugitive who ultimately pleaded guilty to trying to plant bombs to blow up police cars. He flirted with the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan in the 1990s and helped organize Farrakhan’s Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

Ellison says he has rejected Farrakhan’s positions, particularly what many see as Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, and pushes back against reports that he met with Farrakhan as recently as 2016. When Wardlow brought up a column Ellison wrote that praised the Nation of Islam leader as a good role model for children, Ellison said, “’95 was a long time ago.”

The Almanac panel
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
In their first high-profile joint appearance, a lengthy back and forth on the couch at TPT’s Almanac, Ellison was on the defensive over the Monahan allegations and seemed reluctant to be too assertive toward Wardlow.
For all of those reasons, the GOP would likely have tried to use Ellison against other DFL candidates in any case. But the strategy only intensified after the Monahan allegations, and some of the advertising has opened Wardlow and the GOP to charges they are trying to stoke anti-Islam sentiments.

The campaign has defined the political cliche of “slugfest,” with Wardlow and Ellison each offering a steady stream of attacks against each other, sometimes more than one per day:

“Wardlow Shows True Colors on Gun Safety, Reverses Support for Background Checks and Accepts NRA Donations.”

“Keith Ellison Sides With Dangerous Criminals.”

“Women’s Health Leaders Join Keith Ellison to Condemn Wardlow’s Derogatory Comments and Anti-Choice Agenda.”

“Ellison Opposed A Bill That Barred Sex Offenders From Teaching Our Children.”

“Doug Wardlow’s Record of Discrimination Pushed by Trump to Supreme Court.”

“An Inconvenient Anniversary for Keith Ellison. Oct. 31, 2001: A terrorist he supported pleaded guilty to a shocking crime.”

“Doug Wardlow Must Answer Whether He Violated Judicial Ethics Standards by Authoring Extreme Far-Right Blog.”

“Keeping Track of Keith Ellison’s Extremism.”

And on, and on …

A focus on undecideds

If the DFL wasn’t concerned about the race before Oct. 23, it was after. That day saw the release of a Star Tribune/MPR poll on the race that found Wardlow was leading among the 800 voters interviewed by a 43-36 percent margin, with 16 percent undecided. A similar sampling one month previously had Ellison leading 41-36 with 18 percent undecided.

Both were taken after Monahan’s allegations were public but indicated that the slow drumbeat of news about the issue were having an impact. Even so, the later poll revealed at least two problems that Ellison could resolve. The first is that five percent of voters were supporting Noah Johnson running under the Legal Cannabis Now label. The other was the still high number of undecideds.

Johnson has now endorsed Ellison, arguing that Ellison is much-closer to him on most issues and would be more likely to support legalization of recreational marijuana. And Ellison’s campaign is now focused on those undecided voters, especially undecided DFL-leaning voters.

He could start in the state’s two most-populous — and most progressive — counties: Hennepin and Ramsey. There Ellison leads Wardlow 50-29, with 17 percent undecided. Compared to other DFL candidates, however, Ellison is doing poorly. In the special election for U.S. Senate, for example, DFLer Tina Smith leads GOP nominee Karin Housley by a 63 to 28 percent margin in the two counties, with 8 percent undecided. In U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s race against Jim Newberger, the incumbent Democrat leads 70-23 with 6 percent undecided. And in the governor’s race, the DFL’s Tim Walz leads Republican Jeff Johnson 60-27, with 9 percent undecided. Capturing the bulk on those Twin Cities undecideds could bring Ellison back to a much tighter race.