Political party endorsements have always been preludes to primary elections in Minnesota. But seldom has awareness of looming primary contests been keener than it was last weekend at the DFL state convention in Rochester and the Republican state convention in Duluth. Both parties’ endorsees for governor — Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Erin Murphy — face serious challengers in the Aug. 14 primary.
For those who value broad participation in democracy, that’s a good thing. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz — and, as of Monday, DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson, a newcomer to the governor’s race — all have the name recognition and fundraising capacity to wage campaigns that capture voters’ attention and illuminate state issues.
But for many party activists, the fact that the state conventions settled little is unsettling. That may be a good thing, too. The caucus-to-convention candidate selection cycle is a 19th-century creation that seems increasingly anachronistic in the 21st. It demands more time, money and stamina of its participants than many people can afford. This could be the year that spurs the adaptation of party processes to the reality that primary elections have evolved into real contests, not rubber stamps for the decisions of convention delegates.
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Despite the best efforts of Murphy, Walz and State Auditor Rebecca Otto (who left the endorsement fight after two ballots and ended her campaign Monday) to sell themselves as candidates for the whole state, regional divisions were evident at the DFL convention. Murphy, a former state House majority leader from St. Paul, found her strongest support among metro-area delegates. Delegates wearing T-shirts for Walz, the First District’s U.S. representative since 2007, were most visible among convention delegates from the First, Seventh and Eighth districts.
Here’s hoping that Walz and Murphy persist in attempting to speak to and for voters throughout the state and that other candidates in both parties follow suit. Minnesota won’t be well-served unless both of its major parties have a stake in both the metro and greater Minnesota.
Murphy, a licensed nurse, won the party’s nod on the strength of a dogged 18-month campaign that focused on the DFL activist base and led with her long suit — health care. She advocates for moving Minnesota to a single-payer system of universal coverage, beginning with making more people eligible for state-subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance. That position, touted by the Minnesota Farmers Union, has considerable appeal in greater Minnesota.
But Murphy’s lieutenant governor choice — state Rep. Erin Maye Quade — is bound to raise questions in that part of the state. Murphy broke with the tradition of rural-urban balance on a gubernatorial ticket by choosing a first-term state representative from Apple Valley. Maye Quade’s unfamiliarity with rural issues was soon apparent; she apologized Monday for whiffing on a reporter’s question about ethanol. Miscues like that could be costly in a 10-week sprint to the primary.
The convention itself produced what some DFLers see as a miscue. Delegates’ failure to endorse Swanson for a fourth term on the first ballot led to her abrupt withdrawal from that race and triggered a chain of candidacy shifts that will add an attorney general contest to the party’s primary ballot. DFLers can also expect U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who was endorsed handily, to face ethics lawyer Richard Painter in the primary.
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In Duluth, Republicans were gleeful toward their convention’s end when they endorsed Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson by acclamation after two other candidates withdrew and crowed openly about what they characterized as chaos in Rochester. It’s true, the small universe of GOP activists emerged from their convention significantly more unified, but they also know they are up against larger forces. Johnson is seeking to define his race against former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, with Johnson backed by the grass roots and Pawlenty by a moneyed elite.
In the bargain there could be a realignment of alliances and driving forces within the party. A number of speakers called for Republicans to campaign hard in the cities and give dissatisfied Democrats a reason to vote red. Others are seeking to drive a wedge into the triumvirate that has dominated Democratic politics in this state for decades — Democrats, farmers and labor — with their own Republican Farmer Labor branding, contending that they have more to offer farmers and workers. Johnson himself is an urban candidate, and he chose Red Lake Nation member Donna Bergstrom of Duluth as a running mate.
Those developments, as discomfiting as they may be for some, should be welcomed. Voters can only benefit from candidates who are prepared to fight for every segment of the population. What was less welcome at the Republican convention was a strong strain of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric that consistently drew the loudest applause and reaction from activists.
The effort to secure the nation’s borders should never be allowed to deteriorate into xenophobia. If Republicans are going to succeed in broadening their appeal, they should bear in mind how vital immigrants have been to this state’s economy. The business owners and farmers they are courting know this already.
Minnesotans benefit from vigorous campaigns that represent diverse viewpoints and focus on how best to solve the problems this state and nation face. To that end, we encourage the candidates to engage respectfully with one another and, more important, to interact with voters.
Meet with Minnesotans. Talk to them. Let them talk to you. Don’t hide behind canned media campaigns and events that limit access. Ask questions. Answer them. The people you seek to govern deserve no less.