What’s the point of political party conventions?
It’s a reasonable question when candidates ignore the major business of the conventions — the endorsements — and just move on to the primary. That’s happening this year in the race for Minnesota governor for both major parties.
Sure, there are the after-parties at the conventions, the enticing array of food trucks in places such as Rochester, where the DFL convention was held June 1-3, and the platform-building. And some of the convention-endorsed candidates manage to avoid primary battles. Conventions have value for those who are there and for gauging the direction of political parties. But convention endorsements don’t matter like they once did.
On the DFL side, three-term Attorney General Lori Swanson failed to clear the 60 percent hurdle for endorsement on the first ballot and promptly dropped out. Minneapolis attorney and party activist Matt Pelikan received the endorsement, and Swanson announced she’ll run for governor instead, with outgoing Eighth District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan as her running mate.
St. Paul state Rep. Erin Murphy won the endorsement for governor, but she’ll face Swanson, First District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and maybe others in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.
The intraparty campaign could be a bruiser, which would help Republicans. But at their convention in Duluth June 1-2, the most formidable candidate for governor, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, didn’t even show up. Delegates endorsed Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, but he’ll have to get by Pawlenty in the August primary.
And then there’s the donnybrook that exploded on June 5 on the DFL side for attorney general. After the convention’s final gavel but before the filing deadline at 5 p.m. that day, Fifth District U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison filed for the office, as did former Attorney General Mike Hatch and Brooklyn Center state Rep. Debra Hilstrom. (Update: Hatch later said he was dropping out.)
Ellison’s move triggered first-term state Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to the Legislature, to file for his congressional seat.
With much less drama, Republicans endorsed state Sen. Karin Housley to take on appointed Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, the former lieutenant governor, and state Rep. Jim Newberger won the thankless endorsement to take on heavily favored incumbent U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Smith faces a primary challenge by Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and well-known CNN political pundit.
Some would say it’s a good thing that conventions don’t just rubber-stamp the choices of party bosses. In fact, it’s been decades since true “bosses” called the shots. The conventions are more often controlled by hard-core activists now, and they’re pushing candidates further to the left and right. Swanson and Walz, for example, were considered anathema by some DFL delegates because of their moderate histories on gun control and NRA endorsements.
Conventions are for the party’s true believers, and their views are by necessity more provocative, aimed at energizing the base. Primary elections are about connecting with a more representative electorate. Voters can do their parties a favor on Aug. 14 by choosing candidates who can appeal to voters beyond their base and who show a genuine willingness to work across the aisle to govern.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN