A group of DFL lawmakers from greater Minnesota is alarmed by the prospect of running in November with the all-Twin Cities gubernatorial ticket of state Reps. Erin Murphy and Erin Maye Quade, their party-endorsed candidates.
As Democrats increasingly lose their hold on political power outside Minnesota’s largest cities, these DFL elected officials — most of whom served alongside Murphy and Maye Quade in the Legislature — worry that a growing metro bent could leave the DFL’s rural constituencies increasingly endangered.
“Perceptions matter, and if you perceive that you are not included, then you will look elsewhere,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, who is supporting U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, one of Murphy’s rivals in the Aug. 14 DFL primary.
“That’s part of the Trump appeal,” Poppe said, referring to President Donald Trump’s wide margins of victory in most of greater Minnesota and rural areas across the country. Even if DFLers can continue to win statewide races by racking up big vote margins in the Twin Cities, a loss of rural support makes it tough to restore legislative majorities.
Murphy, a six-term state representative from St. Paul, said her campaign is focused on solving problems that apply to all Minnesotans — from rural residents to urban dwellers. She cited health care costs, education funding and shortages of affordable child care and housing.
“When we give voice to those issues and say, ‘We’re ready to fight for these things and stand with Minnesotans and embrace again the hopefulness that has been our history,’ when we’re standing together, we are unstoppable,” said Murphy, who has been traveling the state as a candidate for 18 months after a decade spent campaigning on behalf of DFL candidates.
Murphy is running against Walz, whose sprawling First Congressional District extends from the Wisconsin line to the South Dakota border in the southern part of the state; and Attorney General Lori Swanson, a statewide elected official for nearly a dozen years who chose a running mate in U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, hailing from the Eighth Congressional District in northeastern Minnesota.
In short, the DFL is headed into one of the most consequential elections with its geographic fractures on full display. Whichever candidate wins the primary will have to pick up the pieces of a party whose divisions have exploded into public view in recent years on issues like mining and pipelines, guns and criminal justice. Gov. Mark Dayton, the glue who held the fractious bunch together for eight years, is stepping aside.
The winner of the DFL contest will take on either former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the well-funded GOP front-runner; or Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won the party endorsement at the state convention in June. Both hail from the Twin Cities suburbs, and both have running mates from greater Minnesota.
Murphy is expected to run strongest in the Twin Cities, where her progressive profile and choice of the 32-year-old Maye Quade, who is biracial and married to a woman, could draw the votes of the party’s emerging majority of younger, more diverse and urban voters.
But to state Sen. Erik Simonson, who switched his support from Murphy to Walz after the DFL convention despite Murphy’s endorsement win, the Maye Quade pick was a subtle rebuke of greater Minnesota.
“We are leaving out rural DFLers from our message, and an all-metro ticket doesn’t give them incentives to go vote” in November, said Simonson, who represents Duluth.
‘Ignoring what’s going on’
State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, is backing Swanson. He said the current trajectory of the DFL’s decline in support outside the state’s largest cities will accelerate with an all-metro ticket.
“It’s ignoring what’s going on in rural Minnesota and what’s causing the state to go red,” said Tomassoni, referring to recent Republican gains in legislative races across more rural parts of Minnesota. “They’re doubling down instead of trying to fix it.”
Murphy and Maye Quade are dealing with another issue — questions about whether Maye Quade is qualified to lead a state and its more than 30,000 employees should anything happen to Murphy if she were to become governor. Maye Quade is still in her first term after winning an open seat in Apple Valley previously held by a Republican.
A few of her House DFL colleagues who are supporting other candidates were in some cases dismissive of her in interviews: “She hasn’t been in office long enough to have a history,” said state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “As far as media, she has drawn attention to herself,” he added.
Maye Quade raised her public profile with a 24-hour vigil on the House floor this year on behalf of gun control. She started the “hunger caucus” and has been vocal about sexual harassment at the Capitol.
She added to those concerns soon after joining Murphy’s ticket when she flubbed a question about E85, the ethanol fuel blend important to rural economies.
Lauren Beecham, executive director of the progressive group Women Winning, said women and candidates of color are more likely to get questions about their credentials. She compared the questions about Maye Quade’s experience to those faced by former President Barack Obama in 2008.
Maye Quade was a policy adviser to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison from 2014 to 2016 on issues that included immigration, trade, criminal justice, civil liberties and outreach to communities of color. Between 2011 and 2014, she was an in-store manager at a Target in St. Paul. She also managed volunteers and organizers on various Democratic campaigns.
Maye Quade said she has been embraced on the campaign trail, from Aurora, where she has family roots, to Bemidji to the Twin Cities.
“People feel democracy is under threat, and they’re not wrong. Connecting with our campaign has made people feel hopeful,” Maye Quade said. “The thing I hear from Minnesotans is not how old are you, but will you fight for us?”
Rep. Liz Olson, a fellow first-term DFLer from Duluth and a Murphy backer, said Maye Quade has been a leader from the get-go.
“Many people could work many more years and not deliver on the kinds of things [Maye Quade] has,” she said.
DFL Rep. Rick Hansen of South St. Paul, another Murphy supporter, said the greater Minnesota naysayers are living in the past.
“It’s 2018. It’s not 1998 or even 2008,” Hansen said. “We need to engage Minnesota as it is and as it will be, not through the lens of nostalgia.”