Minnesota Elections Post-Mortem

(A very thorough–and very good–post-mortem from a longtime SSPer. – promoted by James L.)

I wrote this diary on Daily Kos a couple of days ago and that it would be equally appropriate here.  I realize it comes nearly three weeks later than most election post-mortems, but nearly all of my free time in the past 20 days has been dedicated to the digestion of as many election returns as possible, particularly in my home state of Minnesota where my knowledge is most prolific.  It was a very good year for Democrats in the state of Minnesota and I will document all the statewide and Congressional races of note, beginning with the two hotly-contested House races and then moving the statewide races.

I had a feeling in the closing weeks of the campaign that Democrat Tim Walz would pull off a victory in what only a few months earlier seemed like a kamikaze run against six-term Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht, but I didn’t think he’d win by a solid six-point margin.  Considering Gutknecht’s mid-summer radio ad buys, I don’t necessarily think that Gutknecht was unable to see this challenge coming.  Nonetheless, his response to the challenge was absolutely abysmal, with boilerplate TV ads where the incumbent couldn’t even be bothered to make an appearance in his own commercials and a series of mismatched debate performances where Gutknecht was very clearly on defense at all times and losing badly to the charismatic Walz. 

I wrote a diary in September on how Tim Walz could eke out a victory in MN-01 with huge margins in his native Mankato and the college town of Winona, along with fighting Gutknecht to a draw in his native Rochester.  In the end, Walz won by huger margins that I would have deemed possible in Mankato and Winona, but also managed to win Rochester by an astounding eight percentage points.  Walz outperformed my expectations pretty much everywhere, padding his margin with wins in a few of the more conservative southwestern farm counties.  It’ll be interesting to see how Walz holds up in 2008 and (hopefully) subsequent election cycles.  The one thing that concerns me is that Walz’s presence on the campaign trail is his chief asset….and that presence will not be as abundant if he’s stuck legislating in DC rather than travelling the district full-time as he did in 2005 and 2006.  Nonetheless, an excellent win for Walz, who I saw speak on two occasions and evoked a level of passion that I haven’t seen since Paul Wellstone.  Keep an eye on this guy.  Big things could be coming from him.

As for MN-06, a number of things went wrong and helped voters in this conservative district fall into the arms of wingnut Republican Michelle Bachmann even though I predicted last summer that Bachmann was too conservative even for MN-06.  Since Bachmann got 50%, it’s not fair to say that center-left Independence Party candidate John Binkowski cost Wetterling the election, but it would have probably at least been close without him in the race.  Nonetheless, far too many things went wrong in this race for Binkowski to shoulder the blame.

Wetterling hemmed and hawed for months, stating at one point that she couldn’t win in this district and then pursued a Senate run.  When it was clear she wouldn’t get the nomination against Amy Klobuchar, Wetterling made an eleventh hour leap into this House race, breaking her word against a moderate Democrat El Tinklenberg who, in hind sight, would have probably been a much better candidate against Bachmann.  Bachmann’s reputation as the Legislature’s wingnut-in-chief helped Wetterling pull off a small lead in September polls, but that’s when the bottom fell out of her campaign. 

The polished Bachmann always mopped the floor up with the political novice Wetterling in debates and public forums and managed to mask her nutball tendencies to the voting public, all while the Wetterling campaign failed to effectively define her opponent.  In the end, some controversial ads by the Wetterling campaign (which I never saw) were heavily scrutinized by the local media and by the final week of the campaign, my dad was hearing from campaign insiders that Wetterling was toast. 

In retrospect, Wetterling’s respectable performance in 2004 was the product of running against Mark Kennedy and having him step into the trap of swiftboating a figure as sympathetic as Wetterling.  Without Kennedy making her look good by comparison this time around, Wetterling’s flaws were more easily apparent.  I’m expecting that Bachmann will make a regular habit of embarrassing Minnesota on the national stage, and could find herself perennially vulnerable in her district.  Here’s hoping the Dems give El Tinklenberg another shot in 2008.

(Click Read More for additional commentary.)

Regarding the statewide races, I start out with egg on my face over my early predictions of a close Senate race.  As recently as six months ago, I ascribed to the conventional wisdom that Mark Kennedy would be a formidable Republican candidate and that the Minnesota Senate race would be close.  Considering Klobuchar’s home base of Hennepin County and familial ties to the Iron Range was being pitted up against Kennedy, the golden boy of outer suburbia, I spun this as a classic Old Minnesota vs. New Minnesota grudge match (which we ended up getting in the state’s gubernatorial election which I’ll get to later) that really excited me as an aficianado of Minnesota politics.

But what we ended up with excited me oh so much more.  How could I have possibly predicted that Mark Kennedy would put forth the lamest Minnesota Senate campaign since Democrat Ann Wynia in 1994?  Even in my wildest dreams, I could not have envisioned Amy Klobuchar riding out a 21-point landslide.  Her success touched nearly every nook and cranny of the state.  She won 79 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, as opposed to John Kerry who won 24 in 2004, and even Bill Clinton who scored what seemed like an insurmountable Democratic record of 76 counties back in 1996.  Klobuchar eked out narrow wins in some stalwart GOP counties such as the German-American settled Republican bastions of McLeod County (Hutchinson) and Brown County (New Ulm), counties that I never expected would be won by a Democrat in a statewide election in my lifetime. 

Kennedy even performed miserably in outer suburbia, winning only two of the six counties in his Congressional district, and by paltry margins of less than three points each at that.  In the end, the combination of the anti-Republican tide and Kennedy’s astounding weakness make me think even the hapless incumbent Senator Mark Dayton could have beaten Kennedy, but I’m thankful to Amy Klobuchar for not making me sweat out that prophesy.

It’s hard to say whether Klobuchar had coattails or whether the DFL mood of the electorate transcended her, but either way, Democratic candidates vastly exceeded expectations across the ballot in Minnesota.  In the back of my mind, I considered incumbent Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer to be beatable, but I also believed that the inclination of center-left voters in Minnesota to cast their ballot third-party in low-profile races would likely drag Kiffmeyer across the finish line once again.

If DFL candidate Mark Ritchie was going to take out Kiffmeyer, with her built-in advantages in the St. Cloud area where she always scores huge margins, I figured it would be by the skin of his teeth.  Once again, I was wrong.  Ritchie beat Kiffmeyer by a convincing five points, winning big in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, where third-party candidate strength derailed Buck Humphrey’s chances in 2002, but also fighting Kiffmeyer to a near tie in the three main suburban counties (Anoka, Dakota, and Washington).  If you’re a Republican winning Dakota County by less than one percentage point, you will not win statewide.  Such was the case with Kiffmeyer.  And good riddance!

A Minnesota Poll from September showing DFL Attorney General candidate Lori Swanson with a nearly 20-point lead should have clued me in to how powerful not being a Republican was going to be in Minnesota this election cycle.  In some sense it did, as even though the Minnesota Poll always oversamples Democrats, the margin Swanson was polling against Republican challenger Jeff Johnson helped me breathe a sigh of relief that we would hold that office.  Nonetheless, I was surprised by the blistering margin of 13 points that Swanson won by, scoring victories throughout the state and winning 65 Minnesota counties compared to Johnson’s 22.

A much bigger shocker was the State Auditor race where I found it hard to believe an incumbent with the surname Anderson in Scandinavian-heavy Minnesota could lose to a challenger named Otto in a low-profile down-ballot race.  But much to my surprise, Democrat Otto smashed Anderson almost as strongly as Swanson did Johnson in the Attorney General’s race, winning by 11 points and winning 56 out of the 87 counties.  Anderson even got trounced in her home county (Dakota), which is a suburban enclave where she won by 16 points in 2002.

Just as stunning were the tremendous gains the DFL made in the Legislature, notwithstanding the sad defeat of Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson in his increasingly conservative central Minnesota district (unfortunately, I could see Johnson’s defeat coming more than a year ago).  Nonetheless, the breadth of DFL gains throughout the state was breathtaking and the list of Republican casualties jaw-dropping.  Phil Krinkie in Lino Lakes.  Gone!  Brian LeClair in Woodbury.  Outta there!  Carrie Ruud in Bemidji.  Good to know ya! The DFL picked up even more legislative seats in Rochester and somehow managed to pick up a Senate seat in freakin’ Fergus Falls, perhaps the deepest red redoubt of outstate conservatism.  The DFL now has nearly 2-1 supermajorities in both Houses, and we will definitely need them given that the DFL once again failed to pick up the statehouse.

And with that segue, I’ll now focus on the one disappointment for Minnesota Democrats on election night, and that of course is the gubernatorial election where incumbent Republican Tim Pawlenty held on by a one-point margin.  I’m of the mind that DFLer Mike Hatch’s eleventh-hour implosion cost him the election, although there are plenty who disagree with that consensus.  Judi Dutcher’s “What’s E-85?” gaffe probably didn’t do it alone, but it probably cost Hatch votes in the corn belt as Hatch’s numbers were softer than expected in the lower reaches of the proverbial “L”.  There’s no other explanation for me why ethanol-heavy Swift County, a western Minnesota DFL stronghold and birthplace of the Farmer-Labor Party went for Hatch by only 7 points, and why the swing county of Renville (even more ethanol-heavy) a few miles down the road went for Pawlenty by nearly eight points.

But Hatch pointed the shotgun barrel at his other foot and squeezed the trigger with the “Republican whore” brouhaha.  When the first 10 minutes of a televised debate the Friday before the election is dedicated to the “frontrunner” defending his potty mouth, it’s unlikely he’ll be a frontrunner much longer.  I’m kind of surprised that didn’t hurt Hatch even more than it did, and probably would have if it had gotten more media coverage outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market.  Visiting my parents in southeastern Minnesota the Friday before the election, the story was barely a blip on the local news, and Hatch’s numbers did not seem to be as suppressed in that region as they were in the metro area.  Similarly, Hatch’s numbers did not seem to take a beating in the state’s southwestern corner as much as they did in west-central Minnesota, which is in the Twin Cities media market.  Voters in the Worthington area are largely beholden to the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, media market, where Minnesota politics merits hardly a word, and where Dutcher’s gaffe probably never passed their ears.

And, of course, Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson, can conclusively be branded a spoiler this cycle, with the DFL stronghold of Ramsey County giving Hutchinson nearly 10% of the vote (with most of it coming from the bluest districts in the city of St. Paul) and almost accounting for the difference between Hatch and Pawlenty by itself.  I’m not one to blame third-party candidates for DFL defeats, but if there was ever a clearcut example of that phenomenon in play it was this gubernatorial election.  Ultimately, it might be a blessing to have Pawlenty around heading in the 2008 Senate election, as DFL fatigue would be more likely to set in had Hatch been victorious amidst DFL supermajorities in the Legislature, and with Norm Coleman poised to be the beneficiary of that fatigue.  On the other hand, Pawlenty’s veep stock went up significantly with his victory, and he would now make a very attractive running mate for somebody like John McCain, increasing the likelihood of a Republican upset in Minnesota in the 2008 Presidential election.

As stated earlier, the Old Minnesota vs. New Minnesota dynamic that I predicted would be in play in the Klobuchar-Kennedy race actually did take hold in the gubernatorial election, with Pawlenty winning in much the way he did in 2002, scoring supersized margins in the suburbs and benefitting from a third-party spoiler.  This warrants mentioning for 2008 because the Senate race is likely to follow the same trajectory.  It’s too soon to comment much on this matter without a DFL challenger selected, but Norm Coleman’s 2002 victory is likely to follow the exact same formula as Pawlenty’s this year.  Finding a challenger that can peel off more of those second-ring suburban voters than Mike Hatch or Walter Mondale (circa 2002) were able to is imperative in beating Coleman, because we’re at the point now where we can’t win statewide if we’re not victorious in the second-ring suburbs…and they will likely be just as difficult to take away from Coleman as they were from Pawlenty.

Then again, I totally underestimated Minnesota’s DFL tide in 2006.  I’ll remain optimistic for now that we can keep the ball rolling heading into the next cycle.