In primary fights, Minnesota parties fight for relevance

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2014 - 10:49 AM

DFL and GOP candidates are taking on endorsed candidates, forcing the parties to prove their relevance.


Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert spoke to delegates at the Minnesota Republican Party Convention at the Rochester Civic Center May 30, 2014.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A once respected House leader, Republican Marty Seifert is feeling his party’s lash since vowing to challenge the GOP endorsed gubernatorial candidate in a primary. And Matt Entenza, a former DFL House leader who served a decade in the Legislature, has all but been branded a traitor for daring to run against the endorsed candidate for state auditor.

There’s more than bad blood behind the vitriol directed at these former party stalwarts. Political parties are under increasing urgency to maintain their relevance in an era where money is moving to outside interest groups and candidates can find paths to victory that don’t always go through the establishment.

“We are going to protect our endorsements and show the people the party is strong and endorsements still matter,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “You can’t go into a general election with people thinking the party is impotent.”

The stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who find themselves with an unprecedented four-way primary fight for governor, as their endorsee faces off against two former legislative leaders and an independently wealthy businessman.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Andy Post, a spokesman for Seifert, from Marshall. “Nobody in this business knows what to do. We are taking our best guess. Times, they are a changin’ for the party.”

An August defeat of the GOP’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate would be another setback for a party still digging out from a mountain of debt and attempting to reimpose a measure of party discipline.

These testy primary squabbles have Minnesota caught up in a larger trend as state parties nationally struggle under tough new campaign finance laws that are shifting contributions to outside groups. These sometimes powerful independent political groups are unburdened by the expense and hassle of running a party structure and the need to get elected to leadership posts.

State political leaders on both sides are desperate to anchor their parties in the middle of a rapidly evolving political landscape. Parties continue to have an unrivaled ability to mobilize armies of volunteers, groom successful candidates and still hold some financial advantages.

State auditor scuffle

DFLers’ fight for state auditor is the most surprising scuffle of the campaign season.

Democratic activists overwhelmingly endorsed Rebecca Otto for re-election to a post that has been a launchpad to higher office.

Entenza stunned fellow Democrats by jumping into the race moments before the filing deadline and promptly hammered Otto over her votes as a legislator.

Within hours, DFLers were swinging back hard at Entenza with the kind of vengeance usually reserved for Republicans. Martin called his last-minute filing “an insult to the hardworking DFLers he has to win over.” Even Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in, saying he and Otto had their differences on some issues but that he pledged to support her. Dayton, coincidentally, won his seat four years ago by defeating the party’s endorsed candidate in a ­primary. Endorsed candidates for various offices also lost in 2006, 2002 and 2000.

Martin, who this time has promised to put the full weight of the party’s resources behind endorsed candidates, said “This has larger implications about the strength of the party.”

The GOP gubernatorial primary has the potential to be just as nasty.

When Seifert ran for governor in 2010, he played the good soldier and stepped aside when he lost the endorsement to fellow legislator Tom Emmer. This time, Seifert says he’s going the distance and GOP activists are pounding him for it. Many would rather see lockstep unity behind Jeff Johnson to limit Dayton’s advantage fundraising and building a campaign infrastructure over the summer.

“My biggest concern in a contested election is that they were going to beat themselves up quite a bit and spend some resources they wouldn’t have had to,” said Joe Buege, a GOP activist from Rogers.

Seifert dismissed the outrage over his primary fight. “This isn’t the Politburo where someone is anointed by a small group of people,” he said.

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