Though most of the last filing day’s 94 new candidates had come and gone, I kept vigil Tuesday near the secretary of state’s elections desk as 5 p.m. approached. It seemed fitting to witness the final moments of the day in which a death knell sounded for this state’s 20th-century candidate selection process.
So this is how the dominance of party endorsements finally ends, I thought. It’s not with a blue-ribbon commission (that was tried in 1995) or a revolt by legislators against party insiders.
Rather, it’s ending because a DFLer who won a third term with more than a million votes in 2014 evidently lost her desire to bow and scrape before 1,400 delegates at last weekend’s state DFL convention.
When Attorney General Lori Swanson strode out of the Mayo Civic Center, she wasn’t just saying “no thanks” to the second ballot that likely would have given her an endorsement. She was also spurning the whole notion that the people in that room had any more right than primary voters have to determine whose name would appear on the general election ballot for attorney general — or for governor.
Swanson’s abrupt move to the governor’s race shook a DFL endorsement edifice already weakened by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who decided months ago to proceed to the primary regardless of the outcome at the convention. He lost the gubernatorial endorsement to state Rep. Erin Murphy, but the only candidacy that ended was that of State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who sounded wistful but resigned when I caught up with her in a food-truck line Tuesday on the State Capitol mall.
Before Tuesday was over, four prominent DFLers — one of them U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee — had jumped into the attorney general’s race with nary a visible qualm about challenging the party’s endorsed candidate, activist Matt Pelikan.
Dozens more DFLers raced to the State Office Building to seek offices that suddenly lacked incumbents. If they gave any thought to whether the party had already, or might still, make an endorsement for their chosen seat, it went unmentioned to the reporters who watched the steady stream into the building Capitol folk unjokingly call the SOB.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Tim Pawlenty laughed off a suggestion by party endorsee Jeff Johnson that the former governor should show his respect for the wishes of the 2,000 state convention delegates and step aside. “We don’t live in Russia,” Pawlenty scoffed.
Think of it: One of the few Minnesota Republicans to have won statewide office in this century, now seeking a comeback, blithely likens the notion that candidates should honor party endorsements to the tyranny of Vladimir Putin. That’s how low politicians’ respect for the caucus-to-convention endorsement system has sunk. That’s why change is now bound to come.
Mind you, I’m not saying that the two winners of last weekend’s gubernatorial party endorsements are at a disadvantage in the Aug. 14 primary. In fact, a plausible argument can be made for a win by each of them.
The primary flurry on the DFL side might work to Johnson’s advantage. Independents and casual primary voters who might have been drawn to the Johnson-Pawlenty contest are now more likely to be lured by the action on the DFL ballot. The smaller the GOP primary vote, the more likely it is to be dominated by the crowd that preferred Johnson to Pawlenty at last weekend’s convention in Duluth.
DFL endorsee Murphy might fare better with two high-profile primary challengers than one. Though Murphy prides herself on running a whole-state campaign, her political base is in the DFL vote-rich precincts of St. Paul and Minneapolis — the latter of which now has a six-way DFL congressional primary and several spirited legislative primaries to spike turnout.
Murphy made eyes roll among the party’s traditional thinkers when she chose first-term Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley as her running mate. Conventional wisdom dictated that she should have tapped a politically moderate male from greater Minnesota.
My hunch is that Murphy had her eye on state demographic data as she made that choice. Between 2010 and 2015, 88 percent of the state’s growth has been in the seven-county metro area, state demographer Susan Brower reports, and nearly a third of that growth has occurred in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The core cities are seeing their best growth rates in decades. The Twin Cities population is also considerably younger and more diverse than its greater Minnesota counterpart. Maye Quade is biracial, half of a same-sex marriage and 32 years old.
But even if the two parties’ gubernatorial endorsees are still standing on Aug. 15, my crystal ball sees an endorsement system on life support. Its flaws, known for decades, are more damning in a modern light. Caucuses and conventions are too exclusive, expensive, time-demanding, and prone to excessive zealotry and special-interest manipulation. Too many good citizens can’t play, and, increasingly, too many good candidates won’t.
There’s an advantage coming to the Minnesota political party that moves smartly now to adapt to that new reality. Ideas like ranked-choice voting in primaries, a June primary with conventions after the filing period has closed and party endorsements of more than one candidate should be considered.
DFLers in Ellison’s Fifth Congressional District announced Friday that they would reconvene their delegates on June 17 for a post-filing endorsement convention. They’re calling it a “special convention.” Here’s hoping they also think of it as a test drive for a new sequence in the process for selecting candidates.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.