A modern Iron Range take on Tuesday’s DFL primary

Tuesday is primary day in Minnesota. The marquee match-up will be the DFL gubernatorial race, as Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza test all sorts of political science theories, many of which involve my native Iron Range and Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District.

The candidates all exist on this ballot for some cosmic reason, to be determined, each with his or her own appeal. Still, watching this year’s governor’s race conjures an interesting image, the reverse cliche of an old Hollywood war movie. That is to say the people who, by Hollywood standards, would have been picked off in the first reel have become the only ones left standing at the end.

Meantime, the dashing, upstart captain with cyan eyes and an ageless charm (R.T. Rybak) was sniped before the plot even got interesting. The smart, complicated policy wonk who can make a radio out of paper clips (Paul Thissen) ran out of rope during a daring escape from an angry mob. And the outspoken Iron Range everyman with a heart of gold (Tom Rukavina) was swallowed up by an angry fascist robot. These are not necessarily the best of metaphors, but only because I’ve tried and failed to find better ones. Watching last Sunday’s KSTP debate only confirms that money (Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton), name recognition (Dayton) and campaign organization (Margaret Anderson Kelliher), not telegenic projection, determined the state of this race. On Tuesday we find out which factor matters most. (Above links lead to my candidate interviews).

Those left as the story approaches its zenith are former U.S. Sen. Dayton, who did not seek re-election after his first term. Long known as a smart but somewhat awkward speaker with a huge heart, Dayton has consistently eschewed the DFL endorsement process in his career, instead spending his family fortune on what he considers an altruistic effort to make things fair for others. Without the money he’d lack the charisma to contend, but his willingness to spend down a century of generational wealth to implement liberal policies holds its own strange appeal. I interviewed all of the current and former DFL candidates for governor and I’ll give this to Dayton. He was the only one who showed up at my real office and sat next to the piles of paperwork I keep on my ratty work couch to talk to me.

Then there’s Entenza, the former DFL House minority leader, whose self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses, and his command of the political dark arts, is both admirable and unnerving to experienced political observers. He inspires strong feelings for or against his candidacy and has thus far spent more than $4 million. By tomorrow he may have spent more of his own money than any gubernatorial candidate ever regardless of whether or not he wins.

Finally, and notably, there’s the DFL endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Outgoing Minnesota House Speaker, Kelliher was an early front-runner who seemed to be lagging behind the energy of early convention opponents like Rybak and Thissen. After a surprisingly strong surge by Rukavina on the first ballot, Kelliher’s team brilliantly parlayed Iron Range and labor interest machinations to her advantage, swamping the field. It was a triumphant victory that rang hollow for some. Since the convention she’s faced criticism for her overly formal speaking style and slow engagement of her campaign after the end of the session. With the intensification of her campaign recently, Kelliher has been picking up steam. Her KSTP debate performance was her strongest yet. The question is whether she has enough momentum to overtake her well-funded and extremely active opponents, particularly Dayton who leads most polls.

Mark Dayton earned an endorsement from the United Steelworkers and the Mesabi Daily News, two important, though not all-powerful, opinion leaders in Iron Range political circles. The Steelworkers have great influence in DFL organization but less ground operation than in years past. The Mesabi Daily News endorsement is also helpful to Dayton. The MDN is the region’s largest newspaper but most voters know that its editorials are essentially the comments of editor and co-publisher Bill Hanna, someone who Iron Rangers both vote with and vote against interchangeably depending on circumstances. In this case, Hanna made a five year old vote on Mesabi Nugget the litmus test for whether or not a gubernatorial candidate was for “jobs” or not. Will it stick? Hard to say. I’ve already expressed my opinion on this topic. I had a Facebook exchange with a teacher friend whose husband is a Steelworker. There are a lot of Range households conflicted between Dayton and Anderson Kelliher. Some will split, others will unify on one candidate.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom floating around the internet about this race. One is that if turnout is very low, the DFL field organization has an advantage in ensuring a Margaret victory, especially if enough people vote in her Twin Cities base. That might be true, but turnout will exceed the 10 percent figure that’s been discussed. Probably by a lot. Turnout will be high here on the Iron Range, as it is always high. We vote here reflexively, like paying taxes, and there are plenty of local races driving up interest. To win, Margaret must not concede the Range. She has not, in my estimation, as she’s been here more lately and will return for a final push this morning. That said, Dayton holds an advantage on the Range and has made the most overt attempt to court Range votes in his TV ads and selection of Duluth State Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon as his running mate.

Union politics will play a role, as the Star Tribune has pointed out. Dayton got a huge boost from the Steelworkers, Teamsters and AFSCME Council 5 in the Cities, but Margaret holds endorsements from Education Minnesota, several of the building trades and AFSCME Council 65 in Greater Minnesota. You’d have to check the math, but this is at least a wash in terms of raw numbers of union workers encouraged to vote one way or the other. And endorsements sway some votes, but not all.

I see it this way: Dayton will probably win most Range precincts and the 8th CD, mostly out of name recognition from his past service. If Margaret holds it close she is still in the game. If she wins some of the big towns — Hibbing or Virginia in particular — by so much as one vote you’re looking at a real chance for her to pull off what would be considered a statewide upset. Higher than expected metro turnout would also help her, but I’m not as confident of that as I am of Range and Duluth turnout. I am well aware that there are fewer people on the Range and in Duluth than in the metro area, but these areas constitute large, consistent DFL primary votes, which will have more impact in tomorrow’s primary than several suburbs put together.

And again, we must address Entenza. He’s been up north probably more than any other candidate, particularly here in Itasca County where I live. He’s spent a lot of his own and his spouse’s money. He’s very smart. He came to my book signing in St. Paul. Minnesota 20/20, a think tank he founded, did some great work under his watch and continues to do so. Still, a whole lot of people just aren’t willing to consider him, either because of style or because of the blunt, arguably effective, stiff arm style of his leadership days and brief run for Attorney General in 2006. For all the money and energy he’s spent, Entenza didn’t gain traction at precinct caucuses, the DFL state convention, or move out of third place in any poll I’m aware of. He’s got a lot to prove about his ground game Tuesday. We’ll see.

I’ll be monitoring my “Seven Range Precincts to Watch” again Tuesday night to try to understand the trends. The election will probably be called before I have the analysis complete, but we’ll know why whatever happened played out the way it did. Finally, yes, I have a favorite in this race, but I do respect all three candidates and their supporters and this post reflects my most honest assessment of the race to date. I further respect supporters of the GOP and IP candidates and hope all of us can have an honest, reasonable discussion of how to fix what is truly a test of our state’s character these next few years.

Aaron J. Brown is the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” winner of a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

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