Recent polls show Coleman leading any of the other Republican hopefuls for the top state executive job, but trailing another former U.S. senator, Democrat (DFLer) Mark Dayton should they win their party’s nomination and face each other in November.
A little history is in order here. Coleman lost the race for governor in 1998 to Jesse Ventura, a celebrity amateur politician, who ran on the Independence Party ticket that year. (He outpolled his former boss, DFL Attorney General Skip Humphrey in that race.) Coleman, originally a DFLer, switched parties in 1997. For two full terms, he was the very successful mayor of the state’s capital city St. Paul. In 2002, he announced again for governor, but Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking for the White House, called to persuade him to switch to the senate race against then-incumbent DFLer Paul Wellstone. A few days before the election that year, with the race too close to call, Wellstone was tragically killed in a campaign plane accident, and even though the DFL substituted former Vice President Walter Mondale for Wellstone, Coleman won.
A natural executive with no previous legislative experience, Coleman performed well in the senate, associating himself often with the moderate wing of the party. A long-time prolifer, Coleman did not arouse anger among social conservatives, but as a vote against drilling in Alaska, for the bank bailouts, and for stimulus legislation, the economically conservative wing of the GOP became increasingly unhappy with him. In 2008, facing a grassroots surge for the Obama candidacy in the state, and a third-party candidate who got 16% of the vote, Coleman was only about 700 votes ahead the day after the election. Correcting for errors, this
was reduced to about 300 votes before an official recount began. Combining inept legal counsel and strategy of his own, aggressive and smart tactics by his opponent, an embarrassingly unfair recount led to his eventual defeat.
It was then thought by most political observers (including this one) that Coleman’s electoral career in politics was over. He had been the target of many bitter attacks by his opponent in 2008 (many of them unfair, including attacks on his family), and after 30 years of public service, being over 60 years old, and having limited financial resources, it seemed to make sense for him to take a lucrative job in the private sector.
Two matters have intervened. First, a truly ideal job has so far eluded Coleman (not surprising in this weak economy), and his friend Governor Tim Pawlenty decided to retire, presumably to run for president in 2012. With the possibility that Minnesota might lose a congressional seat, and the certainly that state will be redistricted in 2012, holding the governorship has become critical to the state GOP for survival. Nevertheless, being shut out of the governor’s residence for 20 years (with all the patronage and influence that accompanies it), had made the DFL the odds-on favorite to win the race in 2010.
A third factor has now intervened. The DFL field has 3-5 major candidates, but no overwhelming favorite. Even if one DFLer gets party endorsement, there will be a bitter and expensive primary only seven weeks before election day. Finally, national momentum has shifted sharply so far this year against the liberal Democrats, and in races all across the country, Republicans are now favored to win.
The GOP gubernatorial field, objectively speaking, is on its surface weak at best. One of the major candidates, the only woman in the race, has already pulled out, anticipating Coleman’s entry. The two remaining major candidates are state legislator Tom Emmer and state house minority leader Marty Siefert. Each are talented, each have serious political vulnerabilities, and neither are well-known. The fact that Coleman leads each of them by 5 to 1 margins in polls with only months to go before election day makes this assertion indisputable.
What is disputable, however, is how strong Coleman is with his party’s grassroots, and with the GOP political class in the state that will be necessary to fund and staff his campaign. Conservatives are visibly angry with Coleman, and could run a candidate of their own in November.
Coleman’s dilemma, then, is how to enter the race in a positive and credible way, and to have a plan for his party’s nomination without, if possible, a primary, or, if not possible, not creating the kind of intraparty conflicts which the DFL now seems heading for in September.
Considering the passions, ideological pronouncements and the impact of national politics this year, it seems a very daunting, if impossible, political dilemma for this well-known Minnesota political figure. But time is running out for a decision, perhaps only a few days or a week or two at the most. His entry into the race, while now seemingly likely, is not inevitable.
In a 30-year career of public service, marked by controversy and triumph, accomplishment and defeat, this will be the greatest test of his durability and his political survival.