In the wake of Tuesday’s primaries in this most unique of Minnesota election years, here are a few stray thoughts that worked their way through my mind today.
In the Democratic gubernatorial race, Tim Walz eased to victory on the strength of his performance across the state, particularly in his southern Minnesota base. Erin Murphy struggled to gain much traction beyond deeply urban areas (and dear old Cook County), which was always the concern with her campaign. Lori Swanson ran well in some initial polls, but from my vantage point, ran one of the more tone-deaf political campaigns I’ve ever seen. While any political campaign will make its share of calculated moves to win support, the degree of pure cynicism, woodenness, and poorly disguised politicking here was about as egregious as it gets. She did best up north, where she enjoyed the coattails of embattled running mate Rick Nolan, but struggled in the metro, and fell behind even supposedly rural-unfriendly Murphy in parts of southern Minnesota. The end result was surprisingly lopsided, and shows Walz’s strength as a candidate this fall.
Over on the Republican side, anyone surprised by Jeff Johnson’s win over Tim Pawlenty wasn’t paying attention. The political moment very much favored Johnson, and much like the Swanson campaign, Pawlenty’s efforts to dodge engagement and float in on name recognition and a money dump demonstrated a terrible sense of the pulse of primary politics. Johnson likely faces an uphill battle; he lacks Pawlenty’s fundraising prowess, and his path to victory likely laies in running up margins in rural Minnesota, where the Democrats have nominated the candidate most likely to resist that tide. That said, Johnson is a canny operator who was able to channel Trumpish political instincts without ever sounding very Trumpish, and that ability to seize the moment is going to win Republicans some elections in the coming years.
Statewide, there’s been talk of Minnesota as a unique opportunity for Republicans amid political climate that favors Democrats, and the attention is worthwhile after the razor-thin 2016 presidential election in this state. However, it’s worth recognizing how historically strong Trump’s performance in rural Minnesota was, and any Republican who wins a statewide race is going to have to outpace that rate. That is a very tall order for anyone in an election where the fundamentals will favor the Democrats, at least to some degree. The fairly straightforward race unfolding in the competitive Senate seat between Tina Smith and Karin Housley will also operate under these general political headwinds, and while I think it’s winnable for Housley, she will need some things that aren’t on our radar right now for things to break her way over the next two and a half months.
If there is a race where that is most likely happen, it may be in the contest for Attorney General. Keith Ellison has run as an unabashed progressive. Last-second domestic abuse allegations have now saddled his campaign, and there’s the lingering question of how well a Muslim man will play outside of his safe congressional district. The next few months will allow the former storyline to play out, and we’ll get a sense of just how much the latter matters.
Up here in the northeast corner of things, Pete Stauber rolled to victory, and will give the Republicans one of their best chances to pick up a Democratically-held congressional seat in the country. Joe Radinovich, meanwhile, had a very strong showing in the DFL primary, and has earned himself a battle with Stauber. Radinovich has a number of things going for him that could help keep CD-8 blue, including a fresh face amid a branch of the DFL that needed one and a lot of outside money. (I should call him by his proper title, Iron Ranger Joe Radinovich, as the outside Super PAC that clearly does not understand anything about CD-8 geography sold him in mailers to Duluthians. Meanwhile, the Stauber camp has already developed a Trumpism for Radinovich: Metro Joe, an attempt to shove him in with those Big City Liberals like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, whose campaign he ran. It’s going to be a long fall, CD-8.)
Progressive favorite Michelle Lee finished comfortably in second, despite running a very low-budget campaign. Her rise was a signal of the base’s strength, but to win, she really needed Radinovich and Jason Metsa to cannibalize each other in the moderate wing of the party. Instead, Radinovich rolled while Metsa, despite the backing of the traditional DFL power players on the Iron Range, put in a surprisingly distant third-place showing. That says a lot about the state of the Iron Range DFL, both in terms of the influence of its bosses and their ability to activate a pro-non-ferrous mining wing of the party without seeing said wing just defect to the Republicans. Meanwhile, I give a lot of credit to Kirsten Kennedy, who ran even with Metsa despite no name recognition beyond a town of 10,000, no money, and no natural constituency in the mining debates that activated many CD-8 Democratic primary voters. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of her political career.
The Stauber-Radinovich fight is going to be brutal, and all corners of this sprawling district are in play. As a Cuyuna Country native, Radinovich has some base to work with in the western, reddest parts of CD-8, and a national map that favors the Democrats will stem any bleeding in the growing exurban part of the district. All signs point to Stauber making gains for the Republicans on the Range, where Trump’s coattails are longest and displeasure with the Democrats’ mining divisions runs deepest. That means the election could turn on the greater Duluth area, which has been an afterthought in recent campaigns, to the point that Stewart Mills didn’t bother having a presence in the city. But Stauber has local name recognition, while an activated base and high turnout in Duluth proper could be Radinovich’s saving grace. The real key, then: do the committed anti-non-ferrous mining activists plug their noses and vote for the vague Radinovich, or do they defect to independent Skip Sandman or stay home?
The Swanson and Pawlenty experiences, coupled with the results of other races dating back to 2016, have made me rethink a theory on how to win elections. In an era of negative campaigning, candidates often don’t win elections so much as they don’t lose them (especially if they have money), and the safest way to lose them is to lose the pulse of one’s base. Pawlenty and Swanson did, and while Walz wasn’t as attuned to the Democratic base as Murphy, he moved just enough to show he understood the moment, and avoided some of the unforced errors of his opponents. I don’t foresee him having the struggles to unify the party that Hillary Clinton had, or that Joe Radinovich will have. Radinovich didn’t run to the base, but did enough to keep much of it on board, and focused on the overall goal, which he pitched as keeping MN-8 blue. He, too, avoided any unforced errors, reacting well when Rick Nolan’s harassment scandal broke. Stable, mistake-free messaging can mean everything.
For all the talk of a progressive wave, meanwhile, Minnesota only really turned left in its areas that were already quite left, with the possible exception of Ellison’s primary win, which has a lot of asterisks right now. This is a pattern consistent with the rest of the country: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez won in the bluest of districts, and democratic socialism has not really caught on in places where one might not expect it to. The result is a Democratic Party that is running very different races in different parts of the country, with Ilhan Omar and Joe Manchin marching under the same banner, playing to the moods of their respective constituents. That may seem incoherent from a national standpoint, but the Republicans have managed to win plenty of elections over the past decade despite an ongoing feud between the Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce wings of the party, so on paper I don’t see why the Democrats can’t have a similarly broad tent. I’m not convinced that party unity is all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to winning elections. When it comes to governance, on the other hand…well, time will tell.