MN-8 DFL convention to reboot hot race

This weekend DFLers in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District will hold their convention in Duluth. The top agenda item will be endorsing a candidate to run against Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8), the upstart freshman conservative in a race that most national watchers are calling a true toss-up. Cravaack was already endorsed for re-election by MN-8 Republicans a couple weeks ago.

The convention will open Saturday, May 5, at 10 a.m. Among the first items of business will be a speech by former Rep. Jim Oberstar, whose surprise defeat in 2010 shocked the longtime DFL district into these very proceedings. Oberstar will surely get a big ovation and his speech will be worth a listen as he never got to give a convention swan song due to the circumstances of the last election.

At 1 p.m., delegates from several northeastern Minnesota counties will begin the endorsement process, selecting from among the announced candidates: former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, former State Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Duluth city councilor Jeff Anderson.

Nolan holds a commanding lead among elected delegates, which is why Clark and Anderson had previously announced that they would be running in an August DFL primary, eschewing the endorsement process. This means Nolan will face only nominal resistance in his bid for the endorsement Saturday. The other campaigns will have a delicate balancing act, maintaining goodwill with the DFL party regulars they’d theoretically need if they win the primary, while trying to minimize the importance of the weekend’s activities.

I’ve been able to follow this race closely and have several conversations with the candidates. My overall assessment hasn’t changed much from what I said two weeks ago, but here are some fresh thoughts.

  • Nolan’s presumptive endorsement win is a major accomplishment by a candidate who didn’t start with a lot of name-recognition in the northeast. One can attempt to minimize the endorsement process, but one cannot minimize how well the Nolan campaign dominated the endorsement process as it was laid out in DFL rules and tradition. No, the endorsement process doesn’t include as many people as a primary, but it does include thousands of very involved people.
  • That said, Nolan better win this endorsement quickly on Saturday afternoon. Any perceived under-performance serves to benefit Clark and Anderson.
  • A clean Nolan win gives him status as a front-runner. The DFL endorsement doesn’t carry much money with it or a guarantee of victory, but it does come with access to the local DFL ground forces which can keep candidates competitive all the way through the process. Nolan would probably also enjoy better ability to raise money than he’s had so far.
  • Clark remains the monied candidate, and will probably also be a front-runner, if only because of her ability to work on new voting audiences through TV ads the others might not be able to afford. For those who followed the 2010 DFL primary for DFL governor, a way to look at this would be: “Is Tarryl Clark the Mark Dayton in this primary, or the Matt Entenza?” Dayton had a well-financed primary operation that narrowly beat the party endorsee, while Entenza scorched even more money and finished a distant third.
  • And then there’s Anderson. Today, IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich announced his endorsement of Anderson, joining many other Iron Range and Duluth leaders. Anderson has so very little money but seems to be generating support from the Range and Duluth regardless. He would really need to run up the score in these two strong DFL constituencies to have any chance of winning a primary. 
  • Way back when I talked about how the story of the MN-8 DFL primary was all the top shelf candidates who didn’t run. Well, interestingly, most of those people have since endorsed Anderson. I believe the only who hasn’t endorsed is Tom Bakk.
  • I think Nolan has the most labor support but both Clark and Anderson have some notable labor support. This means that “labor” will be divided as one of the traditional DFL voting blocks. Things always get weird (ie: less predictable) in northern Minnesota DFL politics when labor is divided.
  • Only an independent poll of likely primary voters will give us any indication of how these candidates are doing. Clark and Anderson both floated internal polls, but both had some odd caveats and both showed pretty much the same thing (nothing much) when you strip away the campaign spin. 
  • Honestly, I could not tell you with certainty how the election would turn out if it were held today.

For all these reasons and more, this weekend’s MN-8 DFL convention in Duluth should rightly be regarded as a “reboot” in the DFL contest to challenge Rep. Cravaack. Nolan will likely emerge from the weekend strengthened, with new pressure on Clark and Anderson to prove to DFL voters why they would be a better candidate.

I’ll check in later in the weekend with an update, particularly if something noteworthy occurs Saturday. I won’t be in Duluth but I’ll have eyes and ears on duty.

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