Wild conventions roil Minnesota governor’s race

Erin Murphy, Lori Swanson and Tim Walz seek the DFL nomination for governor.

The 2018 race for governor of Minnesota keeps unfolding like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, each flip of the page leading to some strange twist.

The race was always going to hold some intrigue. Two term incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton, a popular if sometimes perplexing political figure, leaves office in January. The state’s Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties have shared power uncomfortably for the past four years. This culminated in a failed 2018 legislative session marred by partisan frustrations.

Going into party conventions past weekend, we all knew that whatever DFL and Republican delegates did, there would still be an Aug. 14 primary for the governor’s race in both parties.

Still, it feels like we couldn’t have predicted the theatrics that bring us the race we now have.

In something of an upset, State Rep. Erin Murphy outlasted Congressman Tim Walz for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement on Saturday. Walz, long considered the frontrunner, was going to run in the primary anyway, but he had hoped to make his path easier by also winning the party endorsement. State Auditor Rebecca Otto fell far short of her delegate totals and was knocked out in early ballots. She had agreed to abide by the party endorsement.

Murphy’s victory was the result of a tremendous amount of work and delegate outreach. Ultimately, she got Walz to blink first. Worried Murphy would stampede to victory, Walz enlisted Otto to try to get delegates to not endorse anyone, freeing everyone from their commitments. That backfired, and delegates shifted toward Murphy. Murphy picked State Rep. Erin Maye Quade as her running made, while Walz was already running with Rep. Peggy Flanagan.

But before that even happened, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson fell short her bid for party endorsement for re-election. Swanson had been rumored to be considering a run for governor earlier in the year. But the turn of events at the DFL convention seems to have triggered a maelstrom. Today, Swanson announced her run for governor with outgoing Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan as her running mate.

On a scale of 1-10 on the political surprise scale, that has to be at least an 8 or 9. Swanson, who could be described as a sharp mind but a poor campaigner, seems to have more appeal in a general election than she would in a primary. Further, after opting not to run for governor late last year, Nolan had been inching toward retirement. With health problems in his family, he was going home. He had even endorsed his congressional colleague Walz for governor back in March.

Well, something changed, and now Swanson-Nolan is mounting a comeback campaign.

It’s not totally crazy, though. If we look at the primary election dynamic, we see that the race to replace Nolan in the 8th District will be a huge draw in Northeastern Minnesota. That could put a lot of potentially Nolan-friendly voters into the booths in what might be a lower-turnout election.

But that’s not enough on its own. Swanson has to convince a larger swath of primary voters that she’s better than both Murphy and Walz. In truth, Walz and Murphy both gave strong speeches at the convention and represent different but entirely plausible ways to win the election.

Ah, but Lori Swanson has emerged from nowhere before, snatching the AG race from Steve Kelley in the 2006 primary. Stranger things have happened, though we see no shortage of strange things here.

Meantime, on the GOP side, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson won the Republican endorsement for governor with a big caveat. The candidate with the most money and name recognition opted not to appear at the convention. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had most recently served as a Wall Street lobbyist and industry representative, raised more than $1 million in just a few weeks. He’ll spend that and much more in a GOP primary where pundits favor him to win.

On one hand, Pawlenty is a known quantity who would likely be competitive in the general, but will Republican primary voters take kindly to Pawlenty’s recent vocation on Wall Street? Will voters remember his Quixotic bid for president in 2008 and how he tied up state government to prove a point that year? Or will the GOP just want to win, no matter what?

Clearly, both DFL and GOP voters have a lot to think about this summer. With the House of Representatives also up for a vote this year, Minnesota’s political future could be radically altered by the outcome of this election.


  1. Mike Worcester says

    All this makes me — again — dust off the Growe Commission On Electoral Reform and wonder if we need to consider what that body said in terms of reforms to our endorsement and primary process.

  2. David Gray says

    I have trouble seeing Walz losing in the primary, even before Murphy named her running mate. He is a much more viable candidate and it says something about the state of the DFL that they opted not to endorse him.

  3. OMG….. a slow motion technicolor DFL implosion.

  4. Erin Murphy is a pretty impressive candidate and with Erin Maye Quade she has something of a spectacular chance of winning. They are a truly impressive team and I went in an Otto supporter. The foul note is Nolan who has arisen like a vampire intent on sucking the left dry. He brings money to Swanson’s ticket, was about to lose the 8th CD and will be lucky to have fundraisers that aren’t picketed. He literally lied to his constituents letting them caucus on a cold, dark February night thinking he was running when he knew and had told at least candidate Kennedy he was not going to run. That to me is a horrible thing to have done to thousands of people who acted in good faith. Conspiring behind his constituents’ back was mean. Saying it was because of his daughter when he canmerrily run now is despicable. Stick a fork in him. He is done.

  5. David Gray says

    Well the Swanson/Nolan entry certainly throws a wild card into the mix. Offhand, I’d say Swanson’s entry helps the more extreme candidate, Murphy.

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