This year, for maybe the first time in his political career, Mark Dayton won’t be underestimated — not by much, anyway.
Republicans aiming to unseat Dayton may base their hopes on the slender recount margin by which he won Minnesota’s governorship in 2010. But Dayton is a different candidate now — no longer the moody political fortune seeker and disillusioned former U.S. senator, reaching for an improbable comeback. Now he is a tested incumbent who has been both lucky and shrewd in his first term, and about as successful as one could have imagined.
As a political personality, Dayton inspires more puzzlement than passion, from critics as well as admirers. Many in his trade strive to seem at ease in it — inspired by their own eloquence or at least won over by their own charms. Dayton makes it all look rather like work. His earnest, unceasing focus on his objectives gives even his standard politician evasions and trickeries an odd kind of honesty. It’s all just part of the toilsome job. He yearns to triumph but doesn’t really expect to be loved.
As governor, Dayton has doggedly labored at getting things done for core progressive constituencies, and they will be there for him this year, make no mistake.
To begin where an incumbent’s re-election prospects always begin, Dayton’s economic timing has been terrific. Minnesota’s recovery from the Great Recession was already outpacing the nation’s when Dayton was elected. But the times were hard, and they have steadily improved, especially by comparison with many other states.
It is twaddle, of course, for DFLers to credit this continuing bounce in Minnesota’s step to the immediate tax hikes and “long-term investments” in education and whatnot they put in place just last summer. It seems more probable that there was some slight exaggeration in claims that Minnesota’s vitality had been laid waste by the preceding decade of relative frugality under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Dayton’s GOP predecessor, and the Republican Legislature of 2011-12.
But never mind. Economic sunshine brightens any incumbent’s prospects, the just and the unjust alike, and so it will be with Dayton.
Dayton’s less foreseeable stroke of luck was the record-setting ineptness of his opposition, which looked so formidable as his first term began. Having seized full control of the Legislature in 2010 for the first time in decades, Republicans did everything they possibly could to squander it — and then some.
First, they allowed themselves to be drawn into a partial government shutdown in 2011 over budget disputes. Whether Dayton set the trap can’t be known, but the political calendar gave him motive. The GOP majorities had to face voters in 2012; he did not.
Next, came a preposterous sex scandal within the GOP legislative leadership and a financial crisis at state party headquarters.
Finally, social conservatives insisted on putting a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot to supersize the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. It mainly enlarged the progressive vote, helped defeat Republicans up and down the ballot, and failed outright — giving Dayton and fresh DFL majorities a makeshift mandate to deliver a thrilling progressive policy victory by legalizing same-sex marriage sooner than almost anyone could have predicted.
Meanwhile, the governorship has given Dayton many tools with which to utilize his deft instinct for constituency politics — for catering to the best-motivated and best-organized faction in every dispute.
He led the way toward a bipartisan Vikings stadium deal in 2012, pleasing fans, construction unions and downtown Minneapolis business leaders. Since then, hedging his bet, he has been scandalized to learn from the outcome of a bruising lawsuit that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has been involved in some sharp dealing over the years in New Jersey real estate — and he has diligently decried the Vikings’ long-understood plan to sell pricey personal seat licenses. At times he’s almost sounded like a critic of public largesse for the rich.
He’s been specially attentive to labor interests — pushing for unionization of child-care workers, blocking school reforms the teachers union detests, and calling a halt on plans for state investigations of Minneapolis police misconduct, which the police union doesn’t want.
He made good on his pledge to raise taxes on the rich, while accepting a regressive hike on smokers (another disfavored minority). But he sided with blue collars on a dispute over “Legacy” outdoor funds that pitted hunting and fishing lobbies against urban legislators, and he weighed in against a State Capitol gun ban.
On the spending side, Dayton and lawmakers steered the richest increases toward other governmental bodies — schools, colleges, local governments — with their grateful employees, leaders and middle-class clients. Direct services to the disadvantaged fared less well.
Dayton has also been decisively indecisive when issues grew too hot to handle. He backed off a bold proposal to broaden sales taxes when the business community rebelled (its opposition to the rest of the tax hikes was somewhat muted after that). He put the brakes on planning for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line when resistance boiled over in Minneapolis, especially in an enclave of DFL influentials. He stopped efforts to administratively reform the state sex offender commitment program when politics intruded.
And the incendiary proposals for a new generation of mining on the Iron Range? It turns out Dayton’s Department of Natural Resources will make the crucial decisions after the election.
But despite all this careful positioning, Dayton is not in an entirely safe place with a closely divided, volatile electorate — not if Minnesota Republicans can steady themselves and nominate an appealing, unfrightening candidate.
The badly mismanaged rollout of MNsure — Minnesota’s Obamacare health insurance marketplace — could be a key opening. The antidote to a witches’ brew of satisfied constituencies might be to give the contest an overarching and nationalizing theme.
If Dayton could be linked to all that frustrates and worries voters about Obamacare — and if those frustrations and worries last — the rest might be done by the headwinds of a midterm campaign likely to prove difficult for Democrats nationwide.
But don’t bet heavily against Dayton. It will take a superior campaign to topple him.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.