Thursday, August 12, 2010

Deja Vu, Again? [Primary Analysis]

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party (DFL) in Minnesota today is perhaps the most self-destructive state political party I have observed in more than three decades of professional political observations.

Insisting on an undemocratic and arcane political endorsement system that has for decades produced one political defeat after another for the party establishments and elites (but not always for party candidates in November), yesterday’s DFL primary has one more time produced a humiliating defeat for the left-of-center party regulars and its endorsed candidate for governor, retiring DFL speaker of the state house Margaret Kelliher. Her defeat, by the end of the primary campaign, was expected, and although the state party made a massive effort at the end (including taking increasingly frail former Vice President Walter Mondale across the state to try to rescue Mrs. Kelliher), former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, who refused to participate in the endorsement process, won by about 2%, erasing Mrs. Kelliher’s early evening lead mostly coming from the Twin Cities. A third candidate, a former DFL legislative leader who had family millions to spend and did so, garnered about one-sixth of the total DFL vote. He will no doubt be blamed for Mrs. Kelliher’s defeat, but that would probably be misplaced. The true reason for last night’s outcome was the intrangience, arrogance and inability of the party to adapt to the times.

To make her defeat even more disappointing to party regulars, Mrs. Kelliher was not even the farthest left of the three major candidates, Winner Dayton qualifies for that, having made the centerpiece of his campaign a call for “taxing the rich” of Minnesota. Mrs. Kelliher explicitly rebuked this stance. Mr. Matt Entenza, the third candidate, was the most moderate on this issue, stating that higher taxes would not solve the state’s economic problems. (If there had been no endorsement process, and Mrs. Kelliher had won the primary, she would have been a shoo-in for election November.)

Mr. Dayton, who first ran for office in 1982 (for a U.S. senate seat), lost that year and a run for governor in 1998, but he did win a statewide race for state auditor, and later was elected to the U.S. Senate for one term. His inherited wealth (from the department store chain, later bought by Macy’s, whose name he bears), his past medical problems, and his self-admitted failure as a senator have all become familiar to DFL voters across the state who apparently have decided to give him another chance at high office. He did spend millions for this race, but was significantly outspent by Mr. Entenza (who was unable to give voters a compelling reason to vote for him). Mrs. Kelliher also spent more than a million dollars on the primary, and had the advantage of party organization and its volunteers, as well as the support of the AFL-CIO and other unions.

What now?

Republican legislator Tom Emmer easily won his primary last night, as did Independence Party-endorsee Tom Horner. So for the fourth consecutive election cycle, it will be a three-person race. The IP has been decisive in the previous three elections, electing its own Jesse Ventura the first time, and having its nominee cause the DFL to lost the next two.

The question now is: Will it be four in a row? Ironically, Dayton goes into the final part of the election cycle as the favorite, based on earlier polls, to win in November. But so were the previous three DFL nominees. As the most liberal candidate in the race, and seemingly wedded to his mantra of “Tax the Rich!”, Dayton faces losing some support from moderate DFLers and independents. As has happened since 1998, the beneficiary of this would be the IP nominee, Mr. Horner, a savvy liberal GOP political consultant-turned-candidate. So-called “liberal Republicans” have, however, long left the party, and few of them were likely to vote for any GOP nominee this year. Most of them, in fact, were prepared to vote for the DFL candidate, but now will almost certainly vote for Mr. Horner. Instead of receiving 5-10% of the vote in November, Mr. Horner will now have a good chance to receive 15-20% (or more if he turns out to be an attractive candidate and personality on the stump).

Mr. Emmer has the most raw charisma of the three, but also has the least demonstrated ability to be a statewide candidate. He has made a number of unnecessary gaffes in the primary season, and his campaign was in such disarray that a new manager and staff were recently brought in. Mr. Emmer is a good example of the fatal error some candidates make thinking they know more about running a campaign than their professional campaign staff. If he has now realized this, still early in the autumn campaign, he could still win in November, but it won’t happen if he continues to rely solely on right wing bluster. On the other hand, his conservative economic message is closer to where most Minnesota voters are in 2010, and if he can effectively communicate this, as well as make Mr. Dayton a stand-in for (increasingly unpopular here) President Obama, it will be a genuine horse race.

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