Before they can turn to taking on Republicans, Minnesota DFLers face more than two months of infighting in the high-stakes races for governor and other top political posts.
Minnesota’s Aug. 14 DFL primary now features a three-way contest for governor with no clear front-runner, a five-way race for attorney general, and a mob of candidates vying for the newly open seat in the Fifth Congressional District.
The downside for DFLers in this election year is clear: The contested primaries are likely to stir up a messy debate about what the party stands for, echoing the progressives-versus-establishment battle that has raged nationally since Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. And the expanded list of competitive races will soak up critical financial resources that could otherwise be spent attacking Republicans.
“It’s going to be a crazy ride,” said DFL Chair Ken Martin.
The main prize is the governor’s office; with Gov. Mark Dayton not running again, the DFL is trying to defend a seat it’s held for eight years. Before that, the party spent two full decades locked out of the state’s most prominent political job.
DFL candidates, activists and donors are still sorting out how the shifting political landscape will affect their three leading candidates: state Rep. Erin Murphy, Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. While some are optimistic that all the activity is a sign of an invigorated party, there are also deep concerns that a competitive primary could intensify ideological and regional divides within the DFL — and leave the eventual candidate for the state’s most important seat weakened and short on cash as he or she pivots to the general election.
Martin said his goal is to ensure DFLers come out of the August primary unified and ready to help push the winning candidate toward the governor’s office. But he’s well aware that it won’t be an easy task.
“In a year where you have so much on the ballot, resources are tough to come by [in terms of] time, energy and people,” he said.
Republicans have their own contested primary for governor, with Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in contention. But the better-known, better-funded Pawlenty starts that race as an early favorite, and his focus on criticizing DFLers suggests a general-election strategy already at work.
Murphy, Swanson and Walz all say they intend to spend the next nine weeks talking about why they are the best fit for the job, rather than criticizing one another. But as they work to distinguish themselves, they’re also fine-tuning their messages to appeal to particular groups of voters.
Several DFL insiders said they expect geography could play a major role in the party’s primary, in two ways. Highly competitive primaries in the Eighth Congressional District, which covers northern Minnesota, and in the Fifth Congressional District, which spans Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs, could boost turnout and give those regions an outsized influence in the statewide contests.
Meanwhile, voters from outside the metro area will be closely examining each ticket to see which candidates best represent their interests. Both the Walz and Swanson tickets have representation from inside and outside the metro area, while Murphy, who is running with state Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley, represents an all-metro slate.
Murphy supporters say the lack of representation from greater Minnesota on her ticket — or among any of the DFL’s endorsed candidates for statewide office — isn’t an issue. They point to her years of extensive travel around the state as a legislator and her victory at the party convention as evidence of her interest in and support from all corners of the state.
Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive group that helped secure Murphy’s endorsement, believes Murphy represents “the future of the party” in a way the other candidates do not. He dismisses the idea that voters in other parts of the state will look for a governor ticket with more geographic balance.
“I don’t buy it,” he said. “I think that the only people that it helps to talk about the divisions between greater Minnesota and urban areas is the GOP, who has made all of their politics around dividing people around race and place.”
But Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, a DFLer looking to hang on to his own seat in a part of the state that backed Donald Trump in 2016, said it is a big issue, both for a governor candidate looking to win in the general election and for other DFL candidates trying to build momentum in areas shifting Republican. He’s backing Walz.
“When you don’t have the balance, it sends a poor message to rural Minnesota that the DFL leadership is metro-centric, and I think that hurts our rural DFL candidates,” Marquart said.
The bigger divide in the primary race may be an ideological one. Longtime DFL backers like Sylvia Kaplan, who with her husband Sam is among the party’s most prominent donors, said she’s seeing the split play out everywhere from the party convention to social media. She said there are clear differences in the party based on age and gender, among other factors, but added that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We have a party right now where everyone doesn’t see the world the same way,” she said.
Kaplan said she’s not sure yet how Swanson’s late entry in the race will affect fundraising for other DFLers. She’s also supporting Walz.
Vance Opperman, another major DFL donor, said the groups he works with haven’t yet decided who to back. But he’s frustrated by the past week in DFL politics and expects the upcoming months will be particularly messy — and expensive — as the party tries to coalesce around candidates who can win in the fall.
“What you have is a group of political activists who are obviously much more interested in winning conventions and maybe winning primaries, but they forget the real game is in November,” he said.
Becky Lourey, a former state legislator from Kerrick who ran for governor in 2006, sees it differently. She said she was inspired by the wave of youthful enthusiasm that helped Murphy, her chosen candidate, win the endorsement at the convention. And she said the stampede of candidates who rushed to file for other offices after Swanson got in the governor’s race shows the depth of the DFL Party, rather than its shortcomings.
“Look how positive it is that we have so many people ready to serve, and people who have really stellar reputations and aren’t selfish,” she said.
Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican from Dellwood who ended his own bid for governor in January and endorsed Johnson, said that wide spectrum of opinions about the state of the DFL shows that Democrats may be in a weak position as they head toward November.
“If you talk to legislators, particularly in greater Minnesota, they’ll tell you that’s not just wishful thinking: It’s true,” he said.
But Charlie Weaver, a former Pawlenty chief of staff and executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said it’s “dangerous” for Republicans to assume they can take it easy this year.
“Especially in an environment when you’re already going to be facing headwinds, Republicans can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “They’re going to have to work harder than ever, even if it looks like the other side is in the middle of a dumpster fire.”