Endorsements vs. primaries: A user's guide

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2014 - 7:09 PM

Two roads diverged into a party process …

As politically attentive Minnesotans know, major-party candidates can choose one of two paths to a primary election victory and a spot on the party’s general election ballot. One path runs through a party convention, where candidates attempt to scale a 60 percent delegate vote hurdle to claim endorsement. The other path avoids convention halls and goes straight to the primary.

Which path is best? And once it is chosen, how best to take it? These are questions that every candidate must answer and every pundit gets to second-guess.

Let the second-guessing commence. I know, the primary election is not until Aug. 12. (Citizens, mark your calendars!) But already, a fresh batch of rules for the two roads is coming into view as a result of this year’s race to the ballot. For instance:

• If you’re on the primary path, making a side trip to the convention to ask for endorsement isn’t the waste of time it was once deemed to be. Delegates might be sufficiently glad to see you to favor you with an endorsement. That happened to DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch in 2006. This year, it worked for GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden. But:

• If you tell a convention that you’re going to run in a primary no matter what they do, speak softly and carry a fat campaign bank account. Overstuffed pockets seemed to be the persuasive difference at the convention between businessman McFadden and his 10-ballot-endorsement rival, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg.

• If you’re going to the convention aiming to block an endorsement, try not to be too obvious about it. That’s how Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert, a former House minority leader, got crosswise with a tired and testy convention crowd on May 31. Asking delegates to go home when the endorsement of another candidate — Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson — appeared imminent was deemed poor form.

• If you don’t want to ask for endorsement, it doesn’t hurt to show up at a convention anyway to say hello. Mark Dayton did that at the DFL convention four years ago. The party leaders wouldn’t even allow the former U.S. senator a pass to enter the convention floor.

That snub may have played to his favor. Look where he landed.

This year, businessman-cum-politician Scott Honour sat at a picnic table outside Mayo Civic Center and glad-handed with the party faithful. They left angry at Seifert, not him.

• If you are so keen on ducking the convention that you don’t announce your candidacy until days later, prepare for an angry reaction from party insiders. That’s what has met former House DFL Minority Leader Matt Entenza, who is challenging two-term DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto. She has DFL endorsement for a third term.

Entenza is a shrewd thinker who knows his way down both roads to the ballot. He spent several years recruiting state House candidates for his party — including one Rebecca Otto, winner of a House special election in 2003. He finished a distant third in the DFL’s 2010 gubernatorial primary.

So I doubt he’s surprised by the things DFL insiders have been muttering about his candidacy — gentle words like “ambush,” “traitor” and “opportunism.” He evidently decided that those shots were a price worth paying for a chance to return to elective office, which he left eight years ago to make an ill-fated bid for attorney general. Keeping his intentions quiet for as long as possible helped Entenza keep other possible Otto rivals out of the race. He likely figured the smaller the field, the better his chances.

Entenza’s candidacy is testing the validity of an old rule about primary challenges against incumbents: Be able to point to an error in the incumbent’s record that warrants his or her removal. Entenza faults Otto for not doing more than the basics of the state auditor’s job. Will primary voters deem that sufficient reason for her replacement? Stay tuned.

Today’s last point is this journalist’s personal favorite:

• If you’re not willing to take a convention’s “no” for an answer, explain why, in quotable fashion. Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah did at the GOP Sixth District convention. She issued a principled indictment of the precinct-caucus-to-convention system of candidate selection, charging it with being insufficiently inclusive.

Sivarajah’s April 12 speech didn’t win her endorsement over former legislator and radio talker Tom Emmer. It may not do much for her with GOP primary voters in the north-suburban district. But it gets her today’s last word. Here are excerpts:

“Our fellow Republicans in the [Sixth] District deserve a voice, not a ratification of a well-meaning system that often excludes them. To be sure, this exclusion is unintentional. I don’t know a single person here today who would not welcome more Republicans and their involvement. The reality, though, is that many concerned citizens simply do not have the time this aspect of the process demands …

“A primary offers more people the opportunity to be involved in selecting those who govern them. I’m going to a primary for the young woman who volunteered to be the secretary at her convention but was rebuffed because she didn’t support a certain candidate. I’m going to a primary for the senior citizen who couldn’t drive on icy roads that particular day. I’m going to a primary for the single mother working two jobs so she doesn’t have to be dependent on welfare. I’m going to the primary for the business owner who is struggling to survive and can’t afford to take time away. I’m going to a primary to allow regular Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats to have their voices heard. I’m going to a primary so our brave young men and women serving in our armed forces can participate in the political process …

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