Friday, December 8, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Minnesota Musical Chairs

The imminent (“in coming weeks”) resignation of
Minnesota Senator Al Franken will greatly increase the
volume of a game of political musical chairs in the state’s
2018 election cycle..

The last time a similar circumstance happened in this
northern midwest state was 1978 when both U.S. senate
seats were on the ballot because long-time Democratic
(here called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor or DFL) Senator
Hubert Humphrey had recently died, and the state’s other
senator, Walter Mondale, had been elected vice president
of the United States. The governor’s race that year was
also unusual because the popular incumbent Wendell
Anderson had taken the risky step of having himself
appointed to take Mondale’s place by the former lt.
governor Rudy Perpich (the new governor). At that time,
the DFL dominated Minnesota politics overwhelmingly.
and most observers believed 1978 would be a good DFL
year. Long-time DFL (Minneapolis) Congressman Don
Fraser was expected to win the Humphrey seat (then
temporarily held by his widow Muriel). The first sign of
trouble occurred when Fraser was upset in the DFL
primary by Humphrey pal and moderate businessman
Bob Short who was pro-life and opposed Fraser’s
outspoken environmentalism. The Republicans
chose businessman Dave Durenberger to oppose Short.
Taking on self-appointed Anderson was the GOP national
committeeman and plywood chain owner Rudy Boschwitz.

Angry at Short for defeating the liberal Fraser, many DFL
women now supported Durenberger. Upset with Anderson
for his self-appointment, and for his absenteeism in the
senate (to come back to Minnesota to campaign), many
independents (most of whom usually voted for DFL
candidates) now supported Boschwitz. Nevertheless,
newspaper polls on election eve showed all the DFL
candidates winning handily. But on election night, all of
them lost by a landslide. It became known as the
“Minnesota Massacre.”

The state governorship will be an open race in 2018.
Incumbent Mark Dayton, whose poll numbers have
dropped sharply recently, is retiring. Popular senior U.S.
Senator Amy Kobuchar will be on the ballot. Her poll
numbers remain high. and now presumably, the other
senate seat will be on the ballot.

The race for governor had already begun the game of
musical political chairs in both parties. DFL 1st District
Congressman Tim Walz, State Representative Erin
Murphey, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, State
Representative Paul Thissen, and St. Paul Mayor
Chris Coleman are now in the race, and state Attorney
General Lori Swanson is expected to enter it. These are
all DFLers.

On the GOP side, state legislators Matt Dean and David
Ozmek are candidates, as is recent state party chair
Keith Downey and 2014 nominee Hennepin (Minneapolis)
County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. But waiting in the
wings is former Governor and presidential candidate Tim
Pawlenty who is known to be considering the race, and
could wait until January or February if he decided to run.

The Franken resignation ups the ante for 2018. Governor
Dayton would appoint someone to fill the seat until next
year’s election. That is widely believed to be his loyal
lt. governor, Tina Smith. His presumably better "political"
choices are running for governor, although the appointment
of Mrs. Smith would be well-received, especially by DFL
women. But a new Senator Smith might choose not to run in
2018. That could set off a new round of musical chairs.
Even if she did run, she would likely face a formidable GOP
opponent --- perhaps most likely popular 6th District
Congressman Tom Emmer. (Other prominent Republicans
could also compete for the GOP nomination.)

As in 1978, the DFL had been looking forward to a good year
at the polls, including electing another Democratic governor,
re-electing Senator Klobuchar, and picking up one or two
U.S. house seats from GOP incumbents. DFL strategists also
have been optimistic that Minnesota voter attitudes about
President Trump would help them next year.

Republican best hopes were in picking up the Walz seat,
and successfully defending two of the three seats they now
hold (which are considered vulnerable). The GOP also had
the possibility of picking up the governorship.

Until three weeks ago, the Franken resignation was totally
unexpected.  A second senate race on the ballot in 2018
could turn all expectations upside down.

However upset some DFL voter might be now, most of them
will likely turn out for their nominees next November. The
giant unknown is the damage done to DFL support by
independent and unaffiliated voters in the state (who
comprise almost one-third of all likely voters).

Some pundits have suggested that Franken might rescind his
resignation if controversial Roy Moore is elected in the
special senate election next week in Alabama (and the GOP
senate then fails to expel him), but that would provoke a new
and unpredictable set of reactions among Minnesota voters.

How those voters react to the sudden high volume of political
dissonance, and how they feel (outside the major urban areas)
about President Trump (who remains very popular outstate)
is a big question mark only ten months before election day,
2018 --- forty years after the last big game of Minnesota
political musical chairs.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. Al rights reserved.

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