For many years, Minnesota has employed a quirky procedure for nominating its state elected officials. It began innocently enough, with the two major political parties trying to increase their control of the nominating process by giving increased value to the endorsement by party activists at party conventions throughout the state. The official nomination, of course, came from a formal primary election held in September, but party endorsing conventions at the district level were routinely held in the spring, and soon after that, the state party convention was convened to endorse statewide candidates including governor and U.S. senator.
With the new rules put forward by the liberal McGovern-Fraser commission in 1972 (Fraser was at that time a Minnesota congressman), the party caucus system was made more complex on the Democratic side, and small (usually more radical) groups which had no real chance to prevail with their ideas and candidates were enabled through an arcane system of sub-caucuses to impose policy ideas and candidates that would not win if put before the all the voters of the party. This radicalized the Democratic Party (called the DFL in Minnesota), and over time sent pro-life and more conservative DFLers to switch their allegiance. Occasionally, DFL voters would reject the party-endorsed candidate in a primary, but with radical DFL activists making common cause with organized labor, it was difficult to do. This explains why, with its post-W.W. II reputation as a liberal state (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, et al), Minnesota has not elected a DFL governor since 1986. (That governor, incidentally, was Rudy Perpich, a pro-life and pro-business DFLer.) In fact, Minnesota has not elected a conventionally liberal DFLer as governor since 1974!
Having been chased out of the DFL, pro-lifers either joined the GOP or became independent voters. By 1998, it seemed that it was the DFL’s turn to reclaim the governorship (with its immense powers of appointing judges and state government officials). Previous DFLers, many of them blue collar workers with socially more conservative views than DFL activist elites, now formed a significant unofficial voting bloc, and many of them voted for a last-minute Independence Party (IP) candidate Jesse Ventura who won a surprise upset victory. Since that time, IP nominees for governor, while not winning, have clearly prevented the DFL nominee from becoming governor. It appears that the same could happen again in 2010.
To be fair, although they did not adopt the extreme sub-caucus rules of the DFL, Republican activists on the right also mobilized in the caucuses in the 1980’s and 1990’s, pushing out pro-choice and other moderate Republicans. This might have deteriorated their party as much as in the DFL, but moderate Republican Arne Carlson twice won the governorship over right wing candidates from his own party, and lacking the extremist sub-caucus endorsing system of the DFL, the GOP was able to win the governorship with pluralities in 2002 and 2006, elevating their governor, Tim Pawlenty, to becoming a national figure, and soon-to-be candidate for president in 2012.
This set the stage for a DFL comeback in 2010, as remaining moderate Republicans left the GOP. But the claustrophobic endorsing system provoked long-time DFL party leader and office holder Mark Dayton (former state auditor and former U.S. senator) to eschew the state party endorsing convention and announce he was running in the primary. Former state legislator Matt Entenza, with a family fortune even larger than Dayton’s, then also announced he would go directly to the primary also. DFL speaker of the Minnesota house Margaret Kelliher won a hard-fought DFL endorsement at the state convention, but the problem remained that the delegates to the convention were chosen at precinct caucuses in which only about 1% of those who consider themselves DFLers attended. This has been the chronic and and devastating problem for the DFL (the sole exception was the 2008 caucuses where a greater percentage showed because of that year’s spirited presidential campaign) for more than two decades. (For some mysterious reason, party leaders fail to get or heed the message from voters.)
Once more, the Independence Party has fielded a serious and credible candidate. Like Tim Penny (2002) and Peter Hutchinson (2006), Tom Horner (if he wins, as is likely, his primary) will surely garner a significant percentage of votes in November, especially if voters perceive the DFL nominee as too liberal and the GOP nominee as too conservative. (If the DFL and GOP nominees really tank, Horner might even win.) Horner himself has been a moderate pro-choice Republican political consultant, and shows clear grasp of the economic issues of the state. The irony is that he is likely to draw many more votes from DFL voters than GOP voters, and once again the IP candidate is a threat to an otherwise easy win for the DFL.
Meanwhile, The GOP has nominated an energetic conservative non-urban legislator who has some personality, but has so far demonstrated few political skills as the putative nominee of his party. His recent gaffes, in fact, have stalled his campaign. He will likely be the beneficiary of the new Tea Party movement in the state (that includes thousands of voters who usually don’t vote in state elections). But he needs IP candidate Horner to draw DFL votes so that, like Pawlenty before him, he can win the governorship with a plurality.
Meanwhile, the GOP stands to pick up significant numbers in the two houses of the state legislature (which the DFL now controls be clear margins). This trend fits into the national trend away from the liberal policies of the Obama administration (Mr. Obama won the state by 10 points in 2008, but his popularity has dropped drastically in recent polls). The high tax and spend policies of the past DFL legislature were skillfully parried by outgoing Governor Pawlenty in the most recent session, and it remains to be seen if voters want to return to increased taxes and more public spending advocated by most DFLers.
The whole picture of this gubernatorial election is thus very murky and unpredictable going into Tuesday’s primary. Mr. Dayton, according to polls, is the clear favorite, owing to his high name recognition and his legislative record on behalf of seniors (perhaps the largest bloc of voters in an otherwise low-turnout primary). But this is the first time a primary will be held in mid-August (when many voters will be on vacation), with thunderstorms forecast for the Twin Cities, and when, as perhaps not ever before, well-funded and sophisticated campaigns are targeting specific groups of voters, something which may not show up in conventional polling.