A pair of good political shows were put on Friday and Saturday by Minnesota Republicans in Rochester and DFLers in Duluth. Two state conventions gave partisans reasons to be upbeat and those who cheer for a vigorous two-party democracy reasons to be encouraged.
To be sure, some delegates at the conventions were disappointed that their favorites did not win endorsement. And critics of the caucus-to-convention endorsement process — which have included this page — will still argue that it vests power in too few hands and too many narrow minds.
Still, both conventions demonstrated better capacity to compete for Minnesotans' attention and votes than their parties exhibited in the not-distant past. Here's why:
• With two politically healthy incumbents — Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken — at the top of their ticket, DFLers exhibited more unity than has been typical through most of their party's 70-year history. Both received warm endorsements and delivered solid speeches touting first-term accomplishments.
Only four years ago, Dayton was excluded from the same Duluth hall as he prepared a primary challenge to an endorsed candidate. This time he spoke as his party's clear leader and described a campaign agenda of broadly appealing themes — economic gains, education and infrastructure investments, state fiscal stabilization. Franken, about whom many DFLers were wary when the former comedian made his first run for office, received the reception of a trusted friend.
A contest for the party's secretary of state endorsement was resolved with a quick victory for state Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park, who has a strong record on election policy. Simon was the only sitting legislator to win either convention's nod for higher office — illustrating anew a recurring, troubling tension in Minnesota's body politic between those who govern and the more ideological convention-goers who choose them.
• While not as united, Republicans emerged from two days in Rochester with diminished prospects for bruising primary fights. It took 10 ballots over two days to deliver the U.S. Senate nod to businessman Mike McFadden of Sunfish Lake, but it narrowed the likely primary field he'll face.
McFadden's endorsement revealed a newly pragmatic bent among GOP delegates. McFadden, a political newcomer, may be his party's first candidate to win a major endorsement despite refusing to first vow to drop out if the convention had chosen someone else. A business acquisitions broker, McFadden sold delegates largely on his capacity to mount a well-financed campaign. He has already raised nearly $3 million, more than any other state GOP candidate.
Only one of five other convention Senate contenders, eight-term state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, is thought to be still eyeing a primary. Abeler is respected at the Legislature for his health care expertise and bipartisan problem-solving bent. But he has shown limited fundraising capacity. Defenders of the endorsement process often claim that it gives candidates like Abeler a chance. But increasingly, money rules.
The GOP gubernatorial field was not as settled by the endorsement of Hennepin County commissioner Jeff Johnson. Three other candidates — former House GOP leaders Kurt Zellers and Marty Seifert and businessman Scott Honour — say they'll meet Johnson in the Aug. 12 primary. One of those three carries a new burden as a result of his convention performance. Seifert irritated some party regulars by releasing his delegates after the third ballot without withdrawing from the race — a move that seemed aimed at denying Johnson, who led on every ballot, the 60 percent vote that endorsement requires.
Two years ago, the state GOP was depleted by debt and a growing reputation for extremism. But since 2012 the party has cut its debt in half to a manageable $1 million, toned down its harshest anti-government rhetoric, rebranded itself as the "Growth & Opportunity Party" and put a version of its platform on accessible display via an online "Solutions Center." It lacks household names at the top of its ticket. But it has enough wherewithal and unity to change that come November.