The just-concluded Minnesota primary results signal
further that something curious is happening in Minnesota.
Last September I wrote an article in a national magazine
suggesting that, while the nation was leaning to the
Republicans in 2014, Minnesota was likely to remain safely
Democratic (in this state, the party is called Democratic-
Farmer-Labor or DFL). I did hint that the 8th congressional
district might have a contest, but even there the DFL
incumbent was heavily favored.
Now eleven months later, the political picture has changed.
Incumbent U.S. Senator Al Franken, who had won by only a
few votes in 2008 in a still controversial recount, had been
low-key and non-controversial in his first five years in
Washington, had been on every pundit’s “safely Democratic”
list last year. Today, he is still ahead, but the race is now
rated only “lean Democratic.” His Republican opponent,
businessman Mike McFadden won his primary contest easily
after a surprise win of the GOP endorsement at the state
party convention in June. McFadden, a political newcomer,
had initially come across as uninspiring, caught some
momentum and poise at his convention, and now his attacks
on Franken are attracting national attention. (His comment
during his nationally-broadcast reply to President Obama’s
recent TV address that, while Minnesota is the state of 10,000
lakes, Franken and his colleagues are the “party of 10,000
excuses,” was circulated in the media nationwide. Franken not
only leads in the polls, but in total campaign funds on hand.
McFadden, however, has proved to be a first-rate fundraiser on
his own, not to mention his personal wealth enabling him to
self-fund if necessary. This is now a race in play.
Political newcomer Stewart Mills was an intriguing possibility
a year ago, but today he is giving DFL incumbent Congressman
Rick Nolan a serious race for his money. The Cook Reports has
now changed its rating of the race to “Toss-Up.” Again, Nolan
probably still has the lead, but Mills has turned out to be a
colorful campaigner, and relentless in his pursuit of the seat.
Only the state house of representative is up for re-election this
year, but the DFL was initially thought to maintain the control
it had wrested from the GOP in 2012. Now, with effective
candidate recruitment and DFL unpopularity, it is expected that
the Republicans will win the most seats in 2014.
The one race thought to be absolutely safe for the Minnesota
liberal party was the governorship. Mark Dayton won this office
in 2010 narrowly because the GOP candidate made a huge
blunder, but Dayton has maintained high positive poll numbers
throughout his tenure, and has seemed to be well-liked by
Minnesotans. At the end of 2013, however, the Obamacare
national fiasco hit Minnesota, and Dayton tax-the-rich policies,
along with his overt favoritism to the state’s labor unions,
has pushed his numbers under 50%.
His opponent in November will be Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin
County (the largest in the state) commissioner, and former
state legislator and GOP national committeeman. Johnson
was opposed in his primary by three major opponents who
ran against him despite his winning the GOP endorsement.
They significantly outspent him. As Johnson partisans point
out, he is one of the most underestimated political figures in
recent state history, having initially been given little chance
to win his legislative seat, the commissioner’s seat and the
national committeemanship. He was also widely considered
unlikely to win the DFL endorsement for governor, and not
favored by many to win the primary. He did lose a race for
state attorney general several years ago, but his low-key
political personality has camouflaged the fact that voters
feel comfortable with him. A solid conservative, like Mike
McFadden he has been inclusive enough in his campaigning
to gain support from all wings of the state Republican Party.
Like McFadden, Johnson has the potential to appeal to the
state’s all-important independent voters (about 30% of the
electorate) in November.
The one big surprise in the primary was the outcome in
the Minnesota 1st district GOP primary where endorsed
candidate Aaron Miller was defeated by Jim Hagedorn, the
son of a former congressman. Hagedorn had initially
withdrawn from the race, but at the last minute re-entered
it and won. Incumbent DFLer Tim Walz is not likely to
lose this contest in November, but Hagedorn is considered
a more aggressive candidate than Miller, and might make
the race closer than expected.
Tom Emmer, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2010 whose
flub cost him the election, is back in 2014 as the GOP
nominee for congress in the 6th district (to succeed Michelle
Bachmann). He is expected to win this seat easily against a
weak DFL opponent. Incumbent GOP Congressmen
John Kline and Eric Paulsen are expected also to coast to
victories in their districts. GOP nominee Torrey Westrom
is not expected to defeat conservative DFL 7th district
Congressman Collin Peterson. Two very liberal DFL
incumbents are considered very safe in their inner city
districts in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The Republican Party seemed to be on the ropes in
Minnesota a year ago, having been soundly defeated in 2012,
and heavily in debt, not to mention the divisions of its factions.
Somehow, the conservative party seems to be getting past
this in 2014, although its candidates in major races are
still trailing, and the party is still in debt (although
significantly less than before).
In 2014, it is the DFL which is showing more signs of factional
division, and seems on the defense for many of its programs
and laws put through the legislature it controls and signed
by its governor.
On the other hand, the DFL has one of the most effective
get-out-the-vote operations in the nation, still leads in the
polls, and has outraised the GOP in campaign funding.
Whether Mike McFadden, Jeff Johnson and Stewart Mills
will win upset victories in about two months from now
remains to be seen, but the big difference between a year
ago and now is that unexpectedly the Republicans are very
competitive in Minnesota in 2014.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.