Hillary Clinton did last week what candidates for president often do in Minnesota. She quietly swooped into town, steered toward Lake Minnetonka and switched on her campaign-finance vacuum cleaner. It went to work on a crowd of about 120 that reportedly nibbled crab salad and vegetable-chèvre crêpes while Clinton discussed the challenges facing America’s working families.
You missed the big rally that followed? So did I — because there wasn’t one.
I’m not complaining (much). It’s early. As the far-and-away front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton likely has all next summer and September and October, too, to rent a local arena and put on a show that in many Minnesota minds has become obligatory. The DFL faithful who have worked to keep Minnesota reliably Democratic blue in every presidential election save one since 1960 expect at least one such performance.
Or next year, maybe more than one — given the year’s unusual state political lineup.
Ever-turning four- and six-year election cycles have spun around to a circumstance not seen in Minnesota since 1992, the first time the name Clinton was on the presidential ballot. It’s a presidential year in which no state constitutional office is at stake. Neither U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs. The state’s eight U.S. House seats will be on the ballot, as usual. So will all 201 seats of the Minnesota Legislature.
President, the U.S. House, and the Minnesota House and Senate. Toss in a few county races and a ballot question or two, and that’s the entire political dance card in 2016. (If your memory does not stretch back to 1992, try this variation: It’s 2004 plus the state Senate to boot.)
That means legislative candidates next year will be more vulnerable than usual to the vagaries of presidential politics. The situation has DFL legislators investing a lot of hope in Hillary — and last week, it had the Minnesota Republican Party behaving as the anti-Welcome Wagon as Clinton pulled into town.
The state GOP’s news conference pulled no punches. It called Clinton “shady,” “dishonest and untrustworthy,” and prone to “secrecy and scandal.”
Only minutes later, the business-funded Minnesota Jobs Coalition piled on. It released a poll of 600 likely voters conducted June 9-11 in 16 Minnesota House districts that have proved prone to swing to either party in recent years — 12 in Greater Minnesota, four in the suburbs.
The approve/disapprove results weren’t pretty for Clinton: 35 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove, the coalition crowed. Coalition executive director John Rouleau noted that even among female poll respondents — voters who typically tilt toward the DFL — Hillary’s approval score lagged 6 percentage points behind her disapproval share.
Those numbers shouldn’t cause any panic attacks among DFLers — yet. The poll did not pair Clinton with any GOP rival. And — did I mention? — it’s early.
But the poll’s very design underscores this feature of 2016 Minnesota politics: Control of the Legislature will be the year’s big prize. It likely won’t turn on which presidential candidate carries this state. But it may well turn on how the presidential contenders perform in a few dozen key districts in Greater Minnesota and on the metro fringe.
And as the last several legislative elections showed, a big factor in political performance is turnout. When it’s low — 1998, 2010, 2014 — Republicans generally pick up legislative seats. When it’s 70-plus percent — Minnesota’s usual presidential-year range — DFLers do better.
The question that’s got to be nagging at DFLers is whether a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy can gin up Minnesota’s customary turnout — and whether that turnout will be substantial not only in Linden Hills and Highland Park, but also Willmar, Brainerd and Albert Lea.
Clinton’s money-vacuum stop at Ellen Goldberg Luger’s back yard last week provided little indication that she’s attuned to this local concern. Other aspects of her campaign do.
Within days of announcing her candidacy on April 12, Clinton dispatched a full-time organizer to every state in the country, assigned to work with local Democratic parties and pols to enlist reliable volunteers. That’s an earlier and bigger commitment to grass-roots organizing in states without early primaries than presidential candidates typically make.
Clinton’s man on the ground in Minnesota, Scott Hogan, deflected my queries about his activity to the campaign’s Brooklyn, N.Y., headquarters. There, an official said that Hogan’s been plenty busy, arranging 24 events and signing up more than 575 volunteers in less than two months. Notably, those events have occurred in each of the eight congressional districts, not just the DFL strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.
That geographic reach undoubtedly pleases the DFL legislative campaign crew. So does her professed interest in coordinating her campaign with the DFL Party and legislative races, rather than operating as a free agent.
So do the candidate’s published assurances that she aims not just to win her own election, but to bolster state and local political parties and shore up democracy along the way. One such, from South Carolina: “I am running to live again at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But I don’t want to be there all by myself. I want Democrats elected from the local to the county to the state to the federal level, once again making the case that when Democrats win, Americans win.”
More than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Clinton is a creature of the Democratic Party. She looks likely to be a team player who will visibly ally herself with local candidates, show up a time or two and spend some campaign cash in a traditionally blue state. That undoubtedly sounds good to DFLers trying to hang on to the state Senate and recapture the House.
But as the Jobs Coalition’s poll suggests, Clinton’s reputation as an establishment Democrat may limit her appeal in legislative swing districts. In those places, her efforts to be a DFL party-builder could be a two-edged sword.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.