Here’s a tiny Minnesota political quiz: Quickly — don’t think long or hard — name a candidate for governor of Minnesota in 2018.
If you said “Tim Pawlenty,” you’ve helped me make today’s point.
Hard-fought contests for governor are in progress in both parties, with three DFLers and four Republicans in the serious-contender echelons. Yet unless you hang out at the State Capitol or rank among the few thousand delegates or alternates to state party conventions, it’s quite likely that the names of all but one of those seven candidates — the aforementioned former Republican governor — are not top of mind. And that even when you recall the other names, you’re pretty fuzzy about what each candidate has to offer.
Pawlenty is the hard-to-miss exception. His comeback candidacy went live on April 5 and 6 with a well-orchestrated flourish of publicity that brought to mind Billie Holiday’s lyric: “Them that’s got shall have.”
The Pawlenty headlines kept coming last week. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not running again, but you might not know that from the way he piped up about his gubernatorial predecessor’s record. “Abysmal” was Dayton’s assessment on Wednesday, backed up on Thursday with a flurry of statistics that ensured another two days of news stories about one — and only one — of Dayton’s would-be successors.
As for the others: DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto has occupied an office near the Capitol for a dozen years, yet she would likely go unrecognized walking down most Minnesota Main Streets. After a dozen years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz is familiar in his First District but remains a near-stranger in the rest of the state. Former state House Majority Leader Erin Murphy has been a candidate for governor longer than any other in this cycle and knows a lot of party insiders after stumping for legislative candidates through several cycles. Among other Minnesotans, she’d be well-advised to wear a name tag.
On the Republican side, one candidate not named Pawlenty might claim high name recognition, but that could be because nearly everybody in this Scandinavian outpost knows somebody named Jeff Johnson. Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, was the GOP endorsee for governor in 2014 and was considered the leader for a repeat before the Pawlenty balloon launched. Less familiar among folks who don’t frequent GOP confabs are former state Republican Party Chair Keith Downey and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.
A weak field? I wouldn’t say so. Each of these six candidates has plausibly gubernatorial credentials and is running hard — for party endorsement.
But none of them is yet doing much to win primary or general election votes. Even though each of them could use a name-recognition boost. Even though they are running for what is arguably the most important position on this fall’s Minnesota ballot. And even though this state would benefit from prolonged attention to the challenges with which the next governor must grapple.
For that choice, don’t blame them. Blame what I consider a defect in Minnesota’s political calendar. The primary election — set this year for Aug. 14 — comes too late. It creates an incentive for two-stage campaigns — first a slow, private courtship of party insiders that culminates at state conventions, then a hard-to-follow frenzy for everybody else.
The insiders have tended to be defenders of late May/early June endorsements followed by a mid-August (before 2010, it was mid-September) primary. That calendar enhances their ability to insist that candidates “abide by” endorsements, rather than heading for a primary no matter what a convention does.
But even with that advantage, party endorsements have been losing their punch. Primary contests have become more typical in major races, with endorsed candidates not necessarily shoo-in winners. Consider: The last time a DFL endorsee went on to win an open governorship without a serious primary challenge was 1970.
And some party insiders aren’t fans of August primaries. Take state Rep. Kelly Fenton, a Republican from Woodbury who served as acting Republican state chair when a debt crisis led to the previous chair’s resignation in 2011. Fenton is sponsoring a bill this session to move the primary to mid-June. Her bill lacks DFL cosponsors, but it’s backed by DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon, the state’s chief elections administrator.
For her, it’s about turnout, Fenton told me last week. The 2014 primary election’s 10.2 percent turnout was intolerably low.
“I want to give as many people as possible the chance to have a voice in selecting candidates,” she said. “Too many people are out of town in August and aren’t able to participate.”
What’s more, she said, a June primary would set the general election matchups five months before they will be decided. Voters would have a better chance to know the candidates and hear their messages.
I’d note that parties could then choose to make endorsements in the midstream of primary campaigns, not in advance of them. That would allow delegates to evaluate how candidates are appealing to the voters, not just speculate about how they’ll fare. Endorsements might no longer winnow the field under that scenario, but they might gain attention as timely recommendations to the voters.
The current calendar is built around a bias in favor of selecting candidates at conventions and using primaries as a rubber stamp. But when a candidate with a big name and fat war chest comes along and opts not to respect that pattern, a calendar with a late primary puts the endorsement “abiders” at a disadvantage. And, one might argue, it puts the state at risk.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.