Here’s a Minnesota sign of unusual political times: More names have been crossed off than added to lists of potential candidates in the two weeks since U.S. Rep. John Kline announced he won’t seek an eighth term next year in Minnesota’s south-suburban Second District.
Those announcing their non-candidacy for the GOP-leaning seat include Republicans Mary Pawlenty, Minnesota’s former first lady; Mike McFadden, last year’s Republican contender for U.S. Senate; state Sen. David Thompson, who made a strong but unsuccessful bid for the GOP endorsement for governor in 2014, and state Rep. Roz Peterson, a former chair of the Lakeville school board.
In a category all his own is Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who in cheeky fashion took his name out of contention moments after Kline’s Sept. 3 retirement announcement. “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than run for Congress,” he told MPR. “So, I think that’s a pretty definitive no.”
On the DFL side, state Rep. Joe Atkins has been less definitive. The seven-termer from Inver Grove Heights sent a release on Sept. 10 allowing that “I am giving serious and careful consideration to a run for a Congress. However, most of the folks I regard highly here in Minnesota have suggested I think hard about running for a different office instead. And I am.” (Memo to self: Add Atkins’ name to 2018 lists for attorney general. Maybe governor, too.)
Fear not, election lovers, that the Second District ballot will be blank on Nov. 8, 2016. Two DFLers — St. Jude Medical exec Angie Craig and former Department of Veterans Affairs physician Mary Lawrence — have been running hard for months, and Tea Partier David Gerson, Kline’s primary challenger in 2012 and endorsement challenger in 2014, is back again on the GOP side. We speculators still have our eyes on a few other prospects, Republican state Reps. Tony Albright and Steve Drazkowski and DFL state Rep. Rick Hansen among them.
But the relative quiet in CD2 these two weeks is a far cry from the din that arose in CD5 from a dozen eager candidates when DFL Rep. Martin Sabo retired in 2006, or the race to the microphones in both parties when GOP Rep. Jim Ramstad stepped down in 2008.
More recently, the 2014 vacancy produced by the departure of Rep. Michele Bachmann in CD6 didn’t exactly attract a horde, but it did quickly lure a household name, 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. He holds that seat in the U.S. House today. None of the names remaining on my scribbly CD2 list are as familiar.
Chalk up the void to coincidence if you will. But my conversation with Thompson left me fretting about what might happen to a representative democracy when the job of a representative can be summed up in such unappealing terms.
“I really don’t have interest in working in Washington, D.C., and adopting the lifestyle that is required to do that job,” Thompson said. “Specifically, I’m talking about spending an awful lot of time on airplanes between home and Washington, spending a disproportionately high percentage of one’s time raising money, really cutting into my time with my wife and my family and other things that I like to do.”
Travel, fundraising and family sacrifice have always been ingredients in American-style public service. But Congress — and, to be fair, a fickle and demanding electorate — intensified those expectations over the last several decades. Today, most members of the U.S. House feel obliged to show their faces in their districts every weekend.
Simultaneously and probably not coincidentally, congressional output fell. The opportunity for the psychic reward that comes from making a difference for one’s country is diminished. Meanwhile, chances that an opponent and allied forces will spend millions of dollars to smear your reputation among your friends and neighbors are much increased.
That’s particularly true in a district like Minnesota’s Second, which since the 2012 redistricting qualifies as a genuine swing district. Democrats Barack Obama, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have done well in the Second; so did GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson in 2014.
That suggests that CD2 will be the staging ground for hard-swinging campaigns for years to come. There will be little rest for a new incumbent.
But it also means that voters might prefer a candidate who can comfortably work across party lines, noted Garofalo, who was forkless but still disinterested in making a congressional bid last week. Today’s politics does not reward bipartisan inclinations, he noted. “The overly partisan nature of our politics today means people have more experience working with their bases and less experience compromising with the other side. It’s a big problem — something both parties have to deal with.”
In CD2 in 2016, that problem makes fewer of the folks Minnesota typically sends to Congress — midcareer legislators — able to credibly claim that they “fit the district.” In Congress, it’s a problem that leads to the gridlock that gives federal governance a bad name — which in turn deters able people from seeking office. That’s how self-government can become self-defeating.
For all the genius of its design, this nation’s representative democracy has always depended on something that is not guaranteed — the willingness of citizens of sound character and judgment to seek elective office. I have little doubt that Kline’s seat will attract such candidates. Perhaps it already has. But two quiet weeks in CD2 say loudly that congressional service has lost some of its appeal.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.