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Column: Why Dayton? Why now?

ST. PAUL -- As we look in the rear-view mirror at the 2010 race for governor, one has to ask how did Mark Dayton achieve (or at least likely to achieve) what no other Democrat has been able to accomplish in the last 20 years -- win Minnesota's governorship?

Not only was Dayton able to squeak out a victory (barring a reversal in a statewide recount) but he was able to do it when other Democrats were losing, like 13 incumbent DFL state senators, 21 incumbent DFL state representatives and 36-year incumbent Congressman Jim Oberstar. So, as an observer of Minnesota's politics, one has to at least ask the question -- why Dayton?

The answer to this question is a combination of a few rather simplistic factors. First and foremost, Dayton has run for statewide office on three previous occasions. In 1982, Dayton lost a statewide bid for the U.S. Senate against sitting U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger. That was followed up by two statewide election victories. Dayton's first statewide victory came in 1990, running for State Auditor against Republican candidate Bob Heinrich and capturing 58 percent of the vote. This was certainly one of Minnesota's strangest election years, with Arne Carlson losing the primary election and then replacing Jon Grunseth on the Republican ballot only two weeks before the general election. Serving as State Auditor allowed Dayton to build his public profile.

After a brief hiatus from public office, Dayton ran again for the U.S. Senate in 2000, this time defeating incumbent U.S. Senator Rod Grams with 49 percent of the vote compared to Grams' 43 percent of the vote. Independent candidate Jim Gibson capturing 6 percent.

Entering the race for governor this year, Dayton was the only candidate in the DFL ranks who had held statewide office. In politics, experience still counts.

In the primary, Dayton had a winning populist message -- "tax the rich." This is always a great slogan when trying to attract liberal voters. Playing to their sense of fairness, the message of taking from "the haves" and giving to the "have nots" is an appealing message to a liberal voter. Dayton's upbringing as a trust fund kid positioned him to be the poster child for this type of class warfare.

During the primary season, all of the Democrat candidates focused their attacks on Republican candidate Tom Emmer, leaving Emmer's image damaged after having only token primary opposition. In the face of the best efforts of Speaker Margaret Anderson-Kelliher and the DFL Party, Dayton's money and message won the day in Minnesota's first August primary.

Dayton's message of balancing the budget mostly with new taxes and promising budget increases for K-12 education and higher education was pure fabrication. Despite the budget holes, the media gave him a pass and continued to question Emmer on the lack of a budget plan in early September.

In the meantime, Dayton continued to use his family's name and his bus trips for seniors to Canada for prescription drugs as a means to brand himself as the "good guy" in the race. Promising not to raise taxes on the middle class and providing more money to various special interest groups, Dayton was able to convince 44 percent (according to the polls) of the people that he could pull off his "rabbit out of the hat" budget.

But the more difficult question to answer in the Mark Dayton presumed victory is, why now? In an election were dozens of incumbent Democrats lost, why was Dayton able to eke out a victory? I believe there are two key reasons.

First, Dayton was a "comfortable" choice for many voters. Just like Old Country Buffet serves up mounds of comfort food, Dayton served up a big helping of comfort for voters. He was a known commodity. Tom Emmer was unknown in the minds of many voters. The Dayton brand was recognized by many voters as the old reliable one. Voters selected the "been there, done that" candidate. Dayton effectively used his brand to put voters at ease, at a time when many voters feel apprehensive about their future.

Second, the Democrats were desperate to elect a governor. Democrats had been blocked in the last four gubernatorial elections and were not about to be denied the prize for the fifth time in a row. While many Democrat voters were not enamored with Dayton, they nonetheless held their noses and voted for him. Plain and simple, they were not going to allow the party faithful to wander off and vote for the Independence Party candidate yet one more time. Keeping the party faithful at home in the governor's race was job one.

However, while the Democrats were focusing all their time and attention on the governor's race -- with the presumption that voters would continue to vote for DFL candidates down the ballot -- they lost dozens of legislative races, losing both the House and Senate to Republican control.

For the first time in his political career and more likely in his lifetime, Mark Dayton must actually lead. No more unrealistic budget plans, no more tax the rich, no more promising additional money to various special interest groups. Instead of "Why Dayton, Why Now," the question will soon change to "What Now Mr. Dayton?"

Phil Krinkie, a former eight-term Republican state representative from Lino Lakes, is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

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