Dan McGrath and his organization’s people are the shoe leather and the passion that could carry Hillary Clinton to victory here.
McGrath’s progressive activist group, TakeAction Minnesota, has more than 60,000 e-mail addresses and 15,000 dues-paying members from every congressional district in the state. His 35-person team aggressively walked precincts four years ago and is widely credited for the sound defeat of of the photo ID amendment that was on the state’s ballot in 2012.
But as Clinton prepares to address a summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Minneapolis on Friday, along with presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and others, it becomes clear she has some work to do — even in a state that hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.
Ask McGrath what he thinks of the candidate many once assumed would become the nominee and his mouth turns down.
“The Democrats are letting the opportunity slip through their fingers,” said McGrath, who, despite his deep well of man-on-the-street resources, has not been asked by any presidential candidate for support. “As Donald Trump is offending most of America every day, the Democrats are not really providing a very compelling inclusive alternative vision. … They are not breaking through, and that’s both a source of concern and a source of frustration.”
In Minnesota’s money race, Clinton dominates. For the second quarter of this year, Minnesotans donated more than $780,000 to all presidential candidates — Democrats and Republicans. Of that, Clinton picked up more than 70 percent — $559,700. Sanders, by comparison, garnered $49,000. On Thursday, Clinton struck a joint agreement with the DNC to help raise funds for the national and state parties that could be used in the general election.
Progressives not convinced
Clinton also has locked down many of the state’s most influential Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and former Secretary of State Joan Growe.
But the nationally known “Wellstonian” progressives are waiting to be galvanized.
“If I was giving advice to the Hillary Clinton campaign, I would find a way for some random to come into it,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents Minneapolis and chairs the Progressive Caucus in Congress. Ellison has not yet endorsed anyone. “My advice would be to let people see her for who she is. You can’t ever be scared. If you can’t be who you are in office, why do you want to be in office?”
Some DFL activists blame the media’s fixation on the large and loud Republican field. With 16 prominent GOP presidential hopefuls clawing at the nomination daily in the four early primary states and on cable television, some say it’s hard for Clinton’s occasional speeches and messages to break through the noise.
“It is early. We have to remember that. This is the month of Trump,” said Jeff Blodgett, founding director of Wellstone Action, one of the state’s leading progressive advocacy groups. “I don’t think huge numbers of people are tuning in.” Blodgett, who was the Minnesota campaign manager for President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 races, said that right now, “I think it’s the political talking set that is very engaged in this stuff and is making a judgment about her candidacy.”
Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who is among Clinton’s supporters and fundraisers, said: “The race is really up for grabs in this state. I would say right now the race is between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.” The Vermont senator, an independent vying for the Democratic nomination, has held large public rallies in the state twice in the past several months.
Clinton will not attend any public events while in Minnesota, although she will go to a private fundraiser while here. Sanders said he plans to hand out ice cream to delegates who are hoping to attend the national nomination convention. Former Maryland Gov. O’Malley planned to swing by the State Fair in the afternoon.
A reason to engage
“When people disengage, it’s not because we’re just predisposed to watch TV,” McGrath said. “It’s because we’re not given a reason. I think that’s the concern with Democrats right now. Frankly, they’re not giving us a reason to engage.”
Growe, who is on Clinton’s Minnesota finance team and raising money for her, said she does see engagement, particularly among women.
“Her being a woman is this additional bonus,” Growe said. “I’m sure they are going to turn out as it gets closer. A lot of people are already tired of the campaign. I am almost beginning to feel like that. It’s just all those Republican candidates.”
At the moment, the Clinton campaign doesn’t have a staff person in Minnesota. Scott Hogan, who previously worked as Clinton’s Minnesota director and who was the campaign manager for Everytown for Gun Safety, came on for a “ramp up” phase last spring, but that gig ended earlier this summer.
A Clinton spokesman said Hogan will return to the campaign this fall and work on firing up support ahead of the state’s March 1 caucuses.
Minnesota DFLers, as well as Republicans, have binding delegates for the national conventions.
That means the winners of the caucuses will get the same apportioned percentage of pledged delegates to the national convention.
Acooa Ellis is a 30-something who works in policy and lives in St. Paul. She took time off work earlier this week to hear Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro rally voters on Lake Street.
She said Clinton needed to tap that reservoir of unscripted passion that progressives tend to love in candidates.
“I saw an exchange between her and the Black Lives Matter movement and it was totally not what I’m used to seeing from her,” Ellis said, referring to a recent candid interaction between Clinton and activists that got national attention.
“It was refreshing,” Ellis said. “For the first time in a long time, she seemed genuine … I think there is an opportunity for her to do more with that.”