Dayton faces obstacles in bid for second term
By Bill Salisbury, St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL — Over the holidays, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton read two books that purport to tell the inside story of how President Barack Obama won a second term in 2012: “Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and Richard Wolffe’s “The Message.”
“We’ll try to pick up on what they (Obama’s campaign team) have done,” Dayton said with a grin during an interview at the governor’s residence last week.
He may need shrewd political advice to figure out how to accomplish something he has never done before: win a second term.
Dayton showed his political prowess by winning elections for state auditor and U.S. senator before he became governor. But he stepped down from both his previous offices after one term.
While an early poll showed him leading a crowded field of little-known Republican challengers, Dayton faces some big hurdles at the start of this election year:
- He’s no Amy Klobuchar. The governor isn’t nearly as popular as the U.S. senator who was re-elected in a landslide in 2012. He won the 2010 governor’s race by just 8,770 votes after a recount. Only 44 percent of Minnesotans approved of his job performance in a recent poll, the St. Cloud State University fall survey.
- History is against him and the rest of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket. Voter turnout drops an average of 15 percentage points in nonpresidential election years, and the DFL drop-off is usually substantial.
Moreover, an off-year election in the middle of a president’s second term “usually is bad for his party,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield.
Democratic candidates for governor have won only four of 28 elections (14 percent) since statehood with a Democratic president sitting in the White House, according to a review of election data that Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, published last month on his blog, Smart Politics.
“Our biggest concern going into 2014 is not necessarily the Republicans. It’s really enthusiasm amongst our base,” said state DFL Chairman Ken Martin. “We are fighting history.”
- Dayton is closely linked to Obamacare. The governor is championing the president’s troubled health insurance law in Minnesota, and Republicans are determined to keep the rocky rollout of the state insurance exchange on the front burner.
“I think Obamacare will continue to be a driving issue,” said veteran Republican strategist Ben Golnik, chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition.
Democrats on defense The DFL will be defending a lot of turf next fall. It dominates state government and Minnesota’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, the Democrat who won by a razor-thin 312 votes after a six-month recount in 2009, will share top billing on the DFL ticket with Dayton. Republicans think both are vulnerable.
Their other big target is taking back control of the Minnesota House, which they lost two years ago. The GOP has to pick up just seven seats to regain the majority, and several DFL lawmakers appear vulnerable, including nine who won in districts that Republican candidate Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election.
DFLers also must defend five of the state’s eight U.S. House seats, plus those held by Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto and the one being vacated by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
Before anyone takes on Dayton or Franken, Republicans must sort out their candidates in what is shaping up as mob brawl of a primary. Six GOP candidates have jumped into the governor’s race so far, and six more are running for U.S. senator. Most of them plan to run in the Aug. 13 primary even if someone else is endorsed at the state Republican Party convention in late May.
The announced Republican gubernatorial candidates are special-education teacher Rob Farnsworth, businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, state Sen. Dave Thompson and state Rep. Kurt Zellers.
GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls are state Rep. Jim Abeler, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, businessman Mike McFadden, farmer Monti Moreno, state Sen. Julianne Ortman and retired Army chaplain Harold Shudlick.
“The primary contests will be a drain on Republican resources, and the battles will scar up their candidates,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
But a contested primary isn’t all bad. It will focus public attention on the contenders and give the winner a publicity boost.
Because of the national political environment, “the wind is at their (Republicans’) back,” Jacobs said. “But in Minnesota, the Democratic Party and its allies look like a better fighting force.”
DFLers can tap the sophisticated voter lists and campaign technology that the Obama and Klobuchar campaigns developed to carry the state in 2012. Dayton and Franken also start the year with hefty campaign treasuries.
The state GOP, by contrast, is still digging out of debt. In October, the party reported $1.3 million in unpaid bills, down $630,000 from 2011.
“We still have more debt than I’d like, but it’s basically manageable,” state Republican Chairman Keith Downey said. “We’re in a much stronger position than we were in two years ago.”
The big prize Nov. 4 will be the governor’s office. GOP candidates say the party’s grass-roots activists are hungry to win it back.
Seifert, who finished second in the 2010 Republican endorsement contest, has made campaign stops in 35 cities since announcing his candidacy in late November. He said rank-and-file Republicans are far more energized than they were four years earlier.
“They’re saying, ‘We don’t have a seat at the table. We need to win this thing,’ “ he said.
Most Republican candidates agree the big issues will be Obamacare and the tax increases that Dayton and the DFL-run Legislature passed last year.
But Seifert said the underlying issue is that “people think government is getting too big and out of control.”
Johnson, a former legislator who won a straw ballot for governor at the party’s 2013 state convention in October, said the “big philosophical question” is whether voters support “Dayton’s desire to grow government and have it continue to do essentially the same things or not to grow government and figure out how to make it work better.”
Honour, a successful businessman with no political experience, is betting that voters want an outsider who would set the state on a different course.
“I see our state as underachieving its potential, and Minnesotans are looking to see better results out of government,” he said. “They’re not getting it from the career politicians that we have in office on both sides of the aisle.”
He said he wants to be a “transformational governor” and not “just do things around the edges.”
The University of Minnesota’s Jacobs thinks the GOP could be divided by a ferocious “civil war” that pits the tea party and Ron Paul “liberty Republicans” against business interests and the old-guard establishment.
The candidates acknowledge there are internal tensions in the party but contend they’ll fade when they start focusing on beating Democrats.
“I think Republicans, having seen what this governor has done to this state with one-party control, once we’ve had the internal debate and selected our candidate, we’re going to be ready to unify behind that man or woman,” said Thompson, the state senator from Lakeville.
Zellers, the former House speaker, agreed. “A vulnerable Democrat opponent heals all kinds of wounds and schisms in the party,” he said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.