The 2014 campaign: An inside look

  • Article by: LAWRENCE JACOBS
  • Updated: June 13, 2014 - 6:36 PM

At stake beyond the big re-election bids: Control of the Legislature and Congress.

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Democrats and Republicans rarely agree these days. Not since the Civil War have their divisions been so wide. And yet, top campaign strategists for each party — the folks who will be raising and spending millions of dollars in Minnesota this year — largely see eye to eye on the most likely outcomes of this fall’s big elections.

Each party’s pros agree that the odds favor wins for DFL incumbents Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken. One of the smartest GOP insiders handicaps Dayton and Franken as “3-to-1 or 2-to-1 favorites.”

Meanwhile, the pros also agree that Republicans may well bring all-DFL state government to an end, as they have a “good chance to take the Minnesota House [of Representatives],” as a DFL campaign chief dryly calculated. He tossed in his candid verdict that his party is “down four seats already” in its drive to preserve a seven-seat margin after briefly “renting” a number of seats in GOP-leaning areas during 2012’s Democratic surge.

Defying these various odds will become the obsession of political pros over the next five months. The stakes of the fall elections are big — in addition to the survival of one-party government in St. Paul, there’s the fate of the Democrats’ U.S. Senate majority during the last two years of President Obama’s term.

Here are the highlights in how professionals size up Minnesota’s 2014 campaign, based on conversations with political insiders and activists who spoke bluntly in exchange for anonymity:

Come hither, party faithful

You may pride yourself on judging every candidate on his or her individual merits, but the reality is that at least 7 out of 10 of us vote based on whether we think of ourselves as Republican or Democrat — a psychological attachment that forms in childhood and often persists.

Party loyalty generally gives Minnesota Democrats a seven- to eight-percentage-point advantage in presidential election years, when turnout is highest. Obama won by a bit more than seven points in 2012. GOP brass shy away from appearing defeatist in public, but they privately accept a DFL sweep of statewide races — if DFL turnout is good.

But will it be good this year? A DFL chief’s “biggest concern” is that supporters and donors “suffer from complacency” — tricking themselves into expecting Dayton and Franken to win even though each won his last race only after a razor-close recount. “The support is there,” he said, “but will it show up at the ballot box?”

Both parties’ pros agree that the GOP will prevail in the fall if the overall Democratic advantage in party identification slips to two or three points. That can be overcome by boosting conservative turnout and by attracting independent voters and a few wayward Dems. So strap in for a hard-nosed DFL drive to “gin up the base.”

First ingredient: fear. DFL forces will drive home the urgency and the stakes of the election, hammering on Republicans’ draconian plans should they win — no more same-sex-marriage law, less investment in education, more uninsured as MNsure is gutted.

Next, DFLers will build a campaign infrastructure around the state. They will also sprinkle in visits by Obama and other notables. DFL bigwigs concede that Obama’s dip in approval among independents will hurt them, but calculate a bigger upside in “base mobilization.”

Spoiler alert

The GOP turnout problem might be the biggest surprise this fall. “Achilles’ heel” is how several folks in the Tea Party and the Liberty Movement described the possibility that conservatives “will stay at home.” Although the national media have written them off as a fading power, grass-roots conservatives remain potent — they can withhold support or chase out GOP incumbents in nomination battles, as vividly displayed last week by their defeat of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.

Of course, grumbling from ideological activists is hardly new — in either party — and state Republicans appear more united after their Rochester convention two weeks ago. Grass-roots conservatives were initially irked by businessman Mike McFadden’s more moderate positions and his reticence to meet with them. But he won the endorsement for U.S. Senate by wooing the convention with his electability, according to delegates hailing from disparate wings of the party. The convention’s gubernatorial endorsee, Jeff Johnson, enjoys more enthusiasm in the base, especially after endorsement by his rival and Tea Party favorite Sen. Dave Thompson.

The desire to beat Franken and Dayton appears to be trumping philosophical purity. GOP pros have been privately gleeful that Tea Party and Liberty activists have shifted from purism to pragmatism between the 2010 and 2012 conventions and endorsed two candidates that Democratic and Republican politicos agree have a shot in November.

Even as the threat of GOP civil war recedes, the conservative grass roots may have already put their stamp on the battle for the statehouse by weeding out some of the most competitive GOP candidates. And even a small dip in turnout by disgruntled conservatives could give the DFL an edge in razor-close finishes.

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