The mellow melee of Minnesota’s race for governor

So, consider this list:

  • a senior member and prominent leader in the State House
  • the attorney general of a prosperous state
  • A successful congressman from a swing district

Two of them are going to get sucked up some mystery tube. No one knows where the tube goes. The other one gets to fight a dragon for the right to rule a kingdom.

Then consider another list:

  • two charismatic, up-and-coming DFL House members in swing districts
  • another successful congressman from yet another swing district.

Two of THEM are ALSO going to be sucked up the mystery tube. The victorious entrant on this list will be frozen in carbonite like Han Solo for 4-8 years.

I hope you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. I’m speaking, of course, about the Aug. 14 DFL primary for governor and lieutenant governor in Minnesota.

  • State Rep. Erin Murphy and her running mate State Rep. Erin Maye Quade
  • Attorney General Lori Swanson and her running mate U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan
  • U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and his running mate State Rep. Peggy Flanagan

All six gave up their current jobs — good jobs; jobs they were likely to keep — to run for a new one. All six risk their political careers. Four of them will wake up in the pasture on Aug. 15, having not even advanced to the general election.

When you think about it, this is a remarkable expenditure of political talent and treasure for the DFL. So what are Democrats getting for this price? What lingering conflict drives these combatants toward the flaming hills of Valhalla? What score will be settled, for good and all?

As near as I can figure, each of them believes they’d be slightly better at the job than the others. Each believes they better understand Minnesotans. Each believes they’ll win.

To many potential voters, these candidates vary only in style, not in substance. And while some elbows have been thrown, it seems to be a relatively mild affair given what’s at stake — not only for the candidates themselves, but for a state that is on the front lines of national political realignment.

So today I thought I’d look at these candidates, exploring their paths to victory before looking across the aisle to what the GOP is doing.

The DFL Race

Erin Murphy’s biggest upside? Her work ethic, ability to listen and her appeal to progressives with meaty proposals on issues like universal health care. Critics worry she’ll spook moderates and Greater Minnesota with an all-metro ticket.

Murphy has, to my eye, been the hardest working candidate in the bunch. That’s not a knock on the others, just a reflection of her style. It’s certainly how she won the DFL endorsement. A good stump speech and lots of time talking to voters. But the endorsement’s power of suggestion is waning. She went all in on a progressive agenda, and now must sell that agenda to a DFL electorate heading to the polls for many different reasons. More than the others, she needs to get some good ads up soon.

Lori Swanson’s biggest upside? No partisan voting record to exploit, only a career as a prosecutor and consumer advocate. She’s been hit hard by some for her role in blocking a union at the AG’s office, however. Few really know much about her. She’s an enigma; a well-known name attached to an unknown person. She’ll wait and then drop some competent ads at the end. Anyone uncertain about the race will vote for her.

Which is funny, because she’s probably the candidate least likely to be seen in person.

Tim Walz’s biggest upside? Probably his appeal to Greater Minnesota and his relatable credentials as a teacher and Guardsman. He’d been considered the front runner for a long time, but now finds himself struggling for political oxygen with Swanson and her statewide name recognition in the race. His record as a moderate would help him in a general, but it sits uneasily with a more liberal primary electorate.

To me, the Walz that ran for Congress in 2006 would be a helluva candidate. Unfortunately, it took him a bit to find his groove while making the leap back to state politics. He needs to be sailing on that groove if he wants to win. He could. But his own poll shows him in second, behind Swanson.

Five weeks. That’s all the time Walz or Murphy have to confront their name recognition dilemma.

Second bananas

The running mates? I wish I could tell you with a straight face that any of that matters, but I am an honest man. We didn’t have a Lt. Governor for most of 2018. The one we’ve got now is actively opposed to outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda, but has no power to do anything about it.

I suppose the running mates matter a tiny bit in this primary, a bit less in the general. Each of these talented candidates would find the job a prison from which they must one day escape. The exception is the almost retired Nolan. If he’s smart he’ll open a Lt. Governor Drop-In Center in downtown Crosby and do exactly what he would have done had he stayed retired. Maybe Flanagan or Maye Quade should suggest the same. Perhaps the trio could fight crime? That might be of some use.

Mostly I’d suggest that the DFL has expended far too much talent on this office, costing millions to protect the candidates’ former seats. And I mean no disrespect to past Lt. Governors. Really, we should abolish the office.

The GOP race

The GOP, on the other hand, weighs two leading candidates they’ve seen before.

  • Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his running mate Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach. (In a constitutional twist, former Senate President Fischbach already has the job after the resignation of Tina Smith to take Al Franken’s old Senate seat).
  • Hennepin County Commissioner and 2014 governor candidate Jeff Johnson and his running mate, retired Marine intelligence officer Donna Bergstrom of Duluth.

This race is simpler to understand. Pawlenty is better known and much better financed. He’s a two-term governor, and the last GOPer to win a statewide race. Johnson won the GOP endorsement and is the favorite of conservative activists.

Normally you’d say this is Pawlenty all the way, and it may well be. But fact is that Pawlenty’s been a Wall Street lobbyist for a number of years after leaving the state in the red while pursuing a Quixotic run for president in 2012. Mid-2000s Pawlenty was a tough politician to beat. This Pawlenty is different. A lot of Republicans I talk to are only kinda sorta excited about him, and really only because they think he’s got enough cash to beat a primary-battered DFL candidate. If GOP primary turnout is lower, watch for Johnson to sneak up over 40 percent and — theoretically — into the mix.

Despite what people say, I think Pawlenty and Johnson have an equal chance to win the governor’s race depending on the political climate and who Democrats nominate. Pawlenty brings more money and name recognition, but also more delicious negative ad fodder. Johnson could lose like he did in 2014, but might win if the 2016 Trump voters show up. Really, it’s more about whether or not voters want a change in the state’s direction.

Aug. 14 will be here before you know it. People are already voting early. By next winter we’ll have a new governor, one that emerges from an electorate we do not yet understand.


  1. Gerald S says

    Minor correction: Johnson ran for governor in 2014, not 2010.

  2. David Gray says

    The way the DFL has been functioning if you really want to be governor you need to avoid getting the endorsement of the party unless you’re the incumbent.

    • Both parties look like they will probably reject their endorsed candidate. It actually seems that in both parties the less people know about your ideas and positions, the better off you are, Name recognition seems to be the most important thing.

      Historically, the endorsed candidates of either party have not done very well in winning the governorship for several decades. Pawlenty won the governorship as the endorsed candidate in 2002, but it took twelve ballots for him to be endorsed. Otherwise, I think you have to go back to Al Quie in 1978 to find a candidate who was endorsed by his party and went on to win the governorship.

      • David Gray says

        The Republican nominees tend to fare better in the primaries though.

        • Gerald S says

          True overall. Probably not this year, though.

          The DFL primaries tend to push the party to the right, with endorsees who are selected by the more left leaning party members who dominate the caucuses usually defeated by candidates more to the middle of the road. The endorsed candidates have won the primaries mainly when they are the more middle of the road candidates. This year, that would suggest that Walz or Swanson, or both, would finish ahead of Murphy. Murphy’s best hope is probably that Walz and Swanson will split the more centrist vote, allowing her to squeak through as first across the line in a vote that is fairly evenly split, with her riding her strong union support and left wingers shifting from Otto to victory.

          Meanwhile, polling is suggesting that Pawlenty’s overwhelming name recognition and huge war chest will send Johnson back to the bench, despite his support among the Trump true believers and other more right wing GOP people. As Aaron says, Johnson’s best hope is a low GOP turnout in August, which would give the faithfully voting GOP right an advantage. It is, of course, pretty amusing to see Tim Pawlenty cast as more centrist, having made most of his career as a right wing true believer, but that is a pattern being seen in a lot of other states as well as the GOP remakes itself in Trump’s image and politicians previously seen as quite far right suddenly not pure enough.

  3. Cassandra says

    From my 9 year old son: “Valhalla does not have flaming hills, that I know of. It’s a good place to go; you go there when you die bravely or do a selfless act.” Because, you know, that was the point of the article 🙂 Critics everywhere, Aaron!

    • It was considered good by the Norse people who believed in it, but the point of Valhalla is that it’s a field of endless battle. You fight and die bravely each day, only to be reborn to a new day of battle. But your 9-year-old has a cogent argument! 🙂

      • Cassandra says

        He said, that’s right and now it makes sense because they (the candidates) just keep having to fight.

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