Ronald Eibensteiner: Norm Coleman for governor? No

  • Article by: RONALD E. EIBENSTEINER
  • Updated: January 7, 2010 - 6:56 PM
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Norm Coleman at his home in St. Paul in April.

Photo: Jeffrey Thompson, New York Times

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As we start the New Year, there has been much conversation about the possibility of former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman entering the race for governor. As a former state Republican Party chairman and longtime observer of Minnesota politics, I believe it would be a bad idea both for Coleman and for Minnesota. I write these difficult words as one who strongly supported Norm's historic election victory in 2002, a campaign that left me with a great deal of admiration for his remarkable communication skills and sensitivity to the mood of Minnesotans. Words cannot express how emphatically I wish Norm were still my U.S. senator. Yet there are very clear reasons why Norm no longer represents Minnesota in the Senate, reasons with unmistakable relevance and consequences that resonate statewide, leading me to the inevitable conclusion that he should sit this campaign out.

When word started spreading about Norm's potential candidacy, my first impression (like that of others, I suspect) was that it might be tempting to turn to Coleman, given his high name recognition statewide. However, the reality is that most Minnesotans hold a negative impression of Coleman, which in politics is something that is very difficult to reverse.

The 2008 race between Coleman and Al Franken was the most expensive U.S. Senate race in the country and the nastiest race in Minnesota history. Neither candidate left an overall favorable impression on Minnesotans. Six months after the conclusion of the contentious recount process, recent polling in the Sixth Congressional District (the most conservative district in the state) shows that Coleman has a net negative image (42 percent unfavorable to 41 percent favorable). Statewide, these numbers are likely much worse.

Despite Coleman's successful record as mayor of St. Paul, Minnesotans' strongest lasting impression is of a candidate who's helped install into office not just one but two of the most unqualified and inexperienced individuals in state history. Minnesotans can't afford a rerun of those episodes. In the 1998 governor's race, Norm lost to Jesse Ventura, a candidate who was best known as a former pro wrestler and who is now the host of a conspiracy theory show on television.

Fool me once -- maybe it's a fluke. But twice? Political insiders on both sides of the aisle widely viewed Franken as the weakest DFL candidate and agreed that the 2008 race was Coleman's to lose. This time, a comedian who's known for his rude behavior and blue language clearly outstrategized Norm on the campaign trail and in the recount.

Sure, you can point to the political circumstances in those losses and make excuses. By the same reasoning, however, Norm benefited from the prevailing political winds in the GOP's favor in 2002 in his only statewide win. The fact is, a politician needs to be in tune with the electorate and must find a way to connect. While Norm displayed that knack in the closing days of the 2002 race, he utterly failed to do so in two out of the three statewide races he's run, garnering just more than 41 percent in the 2008 contest. As a result of the outcome of both those statewide election losses, Minnesota politics has literally become a laughingstock staple on the late-night talk shows.

As a businessman, I know something about management and strategy. The 2008 campaign revealed Coleman's shortcomings in both areas. His management team lacked a clear leader, and to this day many of Norm's supporters still don't know who was calling the shots and taking responsibility for his overall strategy. Additionally, Norm's communications strategy probably cost him a decisive margin of victory in the closing week of the race when he was ambushed by reporters in front of television cameras. The footage resulted in a devastating campaign commercial.

The same can be said for the Senate recount, which was bungled by Coleman and his team from day one. Despite Coleman's leading the morning after the election and for weeks to come, Franken's team clearly outpositioned Coleman's -- defining the key issues, sticking to message and winning round after round, while Coleman's team fumbled about in response.

Within Republican ranks, most activists believe Coleman has strayed too often from core Republican principles. Coleman was a cosponsor of "cap and trade" legislation that even moderate Democrats are now distancing themselves from because of its tax-raising implications. Perhaps most distasteful to Republicans was Coleman's support for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in the final months of the 2008 campaign.

It is a virtual impossibility for Coleman to win the Republican endorsement for governor -- his only path to victory is running in a costly primary that would fracture the Republican Party.

One thing the 2008 election taught us is that we cannot go backward but must look ahead. The question is who will step forward to lead the GOP and our great state forward in these challenging times. Just as we need a fresh face and message nationally, we need someone to step forward in Minnesota. I am confident this candidate will win the Republican endorsement and will be elected governor of our great state in November 2010.

Ronald E. Eibensteiner was state Republican Party chairman from 1999 to 2005.

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