No Republican can win a statewide election without capturing at least 40 percent of the vote in Hennepin County. And with the Minneapolis population rising, no GOP candidate can do that without winning at least 30 percent of the city’s vote.
This political math lesson came my way after making the rounds among a cadre of never-say-die Mill City Republican activists. It’s a bit of a stretch. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide election, did indeed take 40.6 percent of the Hennepin County vote, but only 19.8 percent in Minneapolis.
But there’s something to the claim that growth is making Minneapolis more important in statewide elections. If Republican Tom Emmer in 2010 had matched Pawlenty’s share of the city’s vote, he still would have been about 5,000 votes short of defeating Gov. Mark Dayton. As it was, Emmer garnered just 16.6 percent in the city, and lost statewide by 8,770 votes.
This numerical exercise came to mind last week as I scooted to hear a mayoral campaign pitch by Cam Winton — a candidate who lets it slip now and then that he’s a Republican.
It says much about the status of Republicans in Minneapolis that Winton has filed for mayor not with the label of his preferred party but as the “independent responsible inclusive” candidate. Republicans haven’t bothered to endorse city candidates lately — not that Winton is asking them to, mind you. The last endorsed Republican to serve on the Minneapolis City Council was “independent” Denny Schulstad, who retired in 1997.
Winton’s arm’s-length connection to the GOP also says something about him. The 34-year-old attorney and renewable-energy businessman may be a political newcomer, but he’s got some of the moves of a pro.
For example, he knows that when a Republican speaks at the home of someone named Dayton (Vanessa, not Gov. Mark), he does well to emphasize his DFL connections. Winton’s include his wife, DFL convention delegate Emily Pryor Winton, and his mother-in-law, DFL Senate District 48 chair Laurie Pryor. His campaign treasurer is 2008 DFL Third District congressional candidate Ashwin Madia.
Winton volunteered that he’s at odds with the state Republican Party on same-sex marriage. That’s also a smart move when standing in the legislative district that registered the largest “Vote No” percentage in the state on the 2012 same-sex-marriage ban — a whopping 86.3 percent.
He professed that his role in the GOP has been “to try to reclaim the Republican Party as a place for people to be fiscally responsible and socially inclusive.”
But does he want to play a party-building role as mayor, as proponents of that 30-percent analysis fervently hope he does? I think the body language I saw when I asked can fairly be called a flinch.
“No, that’s certainly not my job. That’s a distant 15th in things I care about,” Winton said. “My priorities are jobs, essential services and world-class education. That’s a lot more important than any party.” He’s campaigning on streamlined business regulation, beefed-up police and infrastructure, and mayoral appointments to the city’s school board.
But a moment later, he allowed: “If a side effect is that I catalyze a brand of Republicanism that is socially inclusive and fiscally responsible, sure, great, fantastic.”
That last response is closer to what some long-suffering city GOP stalwarts are hoping for from Winton.
“He could be the young rallying figure,” said Andy Gildea, a former GOP staffer for the Minnesota House. “He and Chris Fields [the 2012 GOP U.S. House candidate in the Fifth District] are the sparks that could get things going again.”
Lyall Schwarzkopf, a former GOP gubernatorial chief of staff who also once represented Minneapolis in the state House, agrees that Winton’s candidacy represents a revitalization opportunity — but only if he wins. “He’s a very moderate person, and would appeal to a lot of people out of the ’60s and ’70s” — the last heyday of Minneapolis Republicanism, Schwarzkopf noted.
They also see that something else the state GOP platform opposes — ranked-choice voting — could be a boon for Winton. He could win if he’s able to stay close to the first-place vote leaders in the city’s wild 35-way mayoral race, and is also able to garner the lion’s share of second- and third-place choices of voters backing also-ran candidates.
That’s a very long shot, made imaginable only by the DFL’s inability to coalesce and endorse a candidate for mayor. The DFL is a behemoth in Minneapolis, seemingly unthreatened by the earnest Green Party (which, with one City Council and one Park Board member, comes closer than the GOP to being the city’s second party) and assorted other collectives. But that does not mean the city DFL is a well-discliplined machine. Winton described the DFL as “engaged in a circular firing squad” this year, with Betsy Hodges, Mark Andrew, Don Samuels, Jackie Cherryhomes and a few others in the mayoral running.
Gildea and Schwarzkopf naturally see Winton’s candidacy through optimistic eyes. They’ve had little to be hopeful about in city politics. In Schwarzkopf’s telling, the surge of Ron Paul-loving libertarians into state party ranks has been a setback for the party in his city, which he once represented in the Minnesota House. Libertarian ideas “scare people,” he said. That stands to reason in a place where less government looks likely to mean reduced safety, weaker schools, weedier parks and fewer transit options.
It will take a different Republican message to score in Minneapolis and give the city something that more nearly represents two-party democracy. That’s been true for a long time. What’s changing is that some Republicans are seeing that the future of two-party democracy in Minnesota is likely to increasingly depend on whether it can be revived in Minneapolis.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.