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.”
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.
The search for swingers
Three-quarters or more of voters have already decided which statewide candidates they’ll back in November — more than 90 percent may have chosen Franken or one of his challengers. Time and money will be devoted to the small number of voters who are not locked down by their party identification and who might “swing” the election.
Here’s the rub: These up-for-grabs voters are, according to polls, relatively uninterested and ill-informed about elections. (If you are still reading, you don’t qualify.)
The pros reach swing voters by presenting dueling frames for an election as a referendum on Ronald Reagan’s famous question in 1980: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Swing voters will support Dayton if they decide, as DFL politicos hope they will, to reward him for recovering the jobs lost during the Great Recession and for the fifth-fastest-growing economy in the country. Expect to hear Dems delivering poll-tested, upbeat speeches about how Minnesota is heading in the “right direction.”
From Republicans, you’ll hear a steady, somber drumbeat: not enough jobs or economic growth; too much taxing of middle-income earners and wasteful spending epitomized by the new office building for senators; “failed” big-government projects like MNsure.
When I first started teaching in the 1980s, the standard political science textbook portrayed state elections as being decided on local issues and personalities. That’s not entirely wrong today, but state elections have also been “nationalized.” Unpopular presidents and national policies (such as the Iraq war under President George W. Bush and Obamacare now) can drag down a party’s candidates all over the country.
The pros aren’t anticipating an anti-Democratic wave on par with 2010’s. But Dems are expected to face a stiff wind as Obama’s approval ratings dip into the mid-40s or below (according to Gallup polling) and may get pulled down by a “huge drag” if his approval drops into the mid-30s — Bush territory in the disastrous 2006 elections for Republicans.
Get ready for a steady barrage of harsh ads that link Franken to Obama in an attempt to nationalize his race, a GOP strategist promises.
Not to be outdone, Franken’s team is preparing to define McFadden as the reincarnation of the last national Republican to hail from the financial world — Mitt Romney. GOP pros acknowledge the weakness and are trying to inoculate McFadden by briefing reporters on the fine differences between investment banking (his line of work) and Romney’s private-equity career. Nice try — McFadden’s touting of his record for job creation as an investment banker will surely draw intense press scrutiny and tough Democratic attacks.
Obamacare sparks the biggest disagreement among politicos. Grass-roots conservatives and a few well-regarded pros are convinced that it will be the issue — “Obama’s Katrina” — and that it has irreparably damaged the president’s credibility and set up the most effective attacks on Dayton and Franken.
Democrats disagree. One DFLer with her ear to the ground reported that Republican attacks on MNsure are “not connecting with voters” and “lack the zing” that conservatives assume. A DFLer with a raft of polls insisted the GOP attacks could backfire: “We are all frustrated over the rollout and want improvement, but what is the GOP alternative other than going back to before, which few want?”
Party whizzes expect a very expensive and, for them, lucrative campaign. (Running campaigns is big business.) A total tab of $40 million to $65 million on the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races is possible, according to a well-placed pro. Statewide candidates can rarely buy an election, but how they use their funds can make a difference in close elections.
Pulling the trigger early to wound your opponents before they hit stride has been a DFL advantage. The GOP’s 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer, was hit with $1 million in tough ads by July. The GOP waited until September to respond, and by then Emmer was grievously injured.
Over the past few months, a Republican Paul Revere has been galloping to funders warning of the need to “hammer Dayton now” before he frames up a good-news referendum and his allies clobber the GOP candidates.
Although Democrats are likely to enjoy a money edge again, they may be losing one of their big advantages since 2010 — close coordination of independent expenditures to concentrate firepower and avoid repetition. In 2014, the DFL and the campaigns for Franken and Dayton treat the Eighth Congressional District as “ground zero” for re-electing congressman Rick Nolan and for running up vote totals for statewide candidates. By contrast, the “small dogs” in the DFL House are “finding it harder to coordinate,” as one insider put it. They are struggling to raise the money and resources to hold their majority by investing in suburban and Greater Minnesota races that aren’t priorities for Franken or Dayton.
Are DFL insiders holding back from investing in a lost cause?
What does the crystal ball tell us?
It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen, but here are several scenarios. No surprise: The pros project the most likely outcomes — enough Dems turn out to re-elect Dayton and Franken, but the GOP regains the House majority as it recaptures enough of the nine legislative districts where Mitt Romney won in 2012 but the Republican legislative candidate lost.
This year shows no signs (yet) of 2010’s wave election that swept away Democrats. But it wouldn’t have to hit epic proportions to trigger, according to DFL brass, a “perfect storm” that topples Dayton or Franken in another close election.
The longest odds are against a DFL sweep — but the pieces are there. DFL mobilization could coincide with a dip in GOP turnout after a brutal gubernatorial primary battle that further dispirits conservatives. GOP candidates might be unable to disrupt a feel-good referendum on DFL government with depleted war chests and a splintered base.
About a decade ago, Michael Lewis published “Moneyball” on the revolution in baseball. Judging talent on “gut instinct” is out; rigorous analysis of on-base percentage and slugging percentage is in. That kind of revolution dominates professional political campaigning today. No sure things exist, but the stats reveal probabilities.
Will 2014 follow the odds or defy them?
Lawrence Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.