Minnesota’s wide-open race for governor in 2018 has a long list of potential candidates racing to decide just days after the last election if they’re in or out of the state’s next big political clash.
Donald Trump’s presidential win is already reshuffling expectations about the direction of state and national politics. But an open Minnesota governor’s seat — DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not running again — provides a rare opportunity that most of Minnesota’s political heavyweights can’t help but consider.
“I think people are still sorting out the Trump landscape, and what it means for our state,” said State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who is considering a DFL bid for governor.
Like most potential candidates, Otto said she hasn’t decided for sure but will do so in the next few months. Last Thursday, DFL state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul was first to officially enter the race, and numerous others who might run are quietly courting donors and sympathetic interest groups, testing strategies with advisers and speculating about possible competitors.
Trump lost Minnesota to Democrat Hillary Clinton, but his unexpectedly strong showing here has big implications in the upcoming fight for Minnesota’s top political job. Republican contenders are mulling how to navigate the massive uncertainties that surround Trump’s presidency, while at the same time channeling the anti-establishment fervor he inspired to break their lengthy statewide losing streak in Minnesota.
“We need to welcome the folks that supported Trump — whether they’re inside the party, outside the party or disdain parties altogether,” said state GOP Chairman Keith Downey, who’s thinking about running for governor.
For the DFL, the 2018 governor’s race will be about defending Dayton’s legacy and protecting a seat he won twice after two decades of gubernatorial losses by DFL candidates. To do that, the party needs to start shoring up its slipping support in the smaller regional cities, towns and rural areas of Minnesota that broke big for Trump, and which were already trending toward Republicans before this year’s election.
“The party’s got to do some soul-searching,” said Senate DFL leader Tom Bakk of Cook, who lost his majority in the recent election. “What is wrong with our message that people in large stretches of the state aren’t connecting with it?”
Bakk, too, might run for governor. But, he said, “It’s not an easy path for a rural DFLer.”
The field of potential candidates is large. And candidates who could most easily claim front-runner status in their respective parties are keeping the most mum about their plans.
At the top of that list is U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a DFLer who convincingly won two statewide races and repeatedly scores higher in public opinion polls than any other Minnesota politician.
Klobuchar’s Senate seat is also on the ballot in 2018. That leaves her in the enviable position of choosing whether to seek a third term or to jump into the governor’s race, which many DFL insiders believe she is at least considering, though she hasn’t said so publicly. Democrats in Washington are in for a rocky ride under the Trump administration and full GOP control of Congress, and a turn as a state chief executive would diversify Klobuchar’s political résumé.
“There are major issues before Congress, and the senator is focused on her job as United States senator representing the people of Minnesota,” said Justin Buoen, a political adviser to Klobuchar. But a number of possible DFL candidates are waiting to see what Klobuchar does before finalizing their own plans.
Minnesota Republicans lack anyone with political star power comparable to Klobuchar’s. But former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been the subject of renewed speculation in recent weeks about a possible comeback effort, after he helped raise money for a handful of GOP legislative candidates and placed congratulatory calls to a few after they won their races.
Pawlenty, still relatively young at 55, remains the last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota, his 2006 re-election bid. His 2012 presidential campaign and work now as a Washington lobbyist for big banks grants him access to a wide universe of GOP donors. Were Klobuchar to decide to run for governor, that would leave Pawlenty an opening to run instead for U.S. Senate — a job he originally sought back in 2002, before the George W. Bush White House pushed him into the governor’s race instead.
“While he was happy to help candidates this year in Dakota County where he still resides and a few friends from his time in office, Governor Pawlenty has said many times he is politically retired,” said Brian McClung, a former spokesman still close to Pawlenty.
What do the statements from Klobuchar’s and Pawlenty’s advisers have in common? Both leave the door open for them to do just about anything. Two current U.S. representatives, DFLer Tim Walz and Republican Tom Emmer, are also seen as prospective statewide candidates, and both seem to be keeping options open.
Keeping options open
“He’s naturally on anyone’s list,” said David FitzSimmons, Emmer’s chief of staff, who said the congressman is taking the next few weeks to think about his political future. Walz, who survived an unexpectedly close race, “is focused on serving his constituents in southern Minnesota,” his campaign manager, Terry Morrow, said Saturday.
In all, the Star Tribune contacted more than 20 DFLers and Republicans known or rumored to be gubernatorial prospects. The DFLers who acknowledged they are considering running for governor, either in interviews or through spokespeople, were: Murphy, Otto and Bakk; Lt. Gov. Tina Smith; Attorney General Lori Swanson; St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; and state Rep. Paul Thissen, a former House speaker.
“I feel like it’s too early for anyone to make a decision at this point,” Thissen said.
Republicans who admitted interest include Downey, along with: House Speaker Kurt Daudt; Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek; Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost to Dayton in 2014; businessman Mike McFadden, who lost a U.S. Senate race that same year; state Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake; Sen. David Osmek of Mound; state Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood; and Pete Hegseth, a Fox News contributor and Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans ‘need to win’
“We certainly need to win that race in 2018, and I’m honored and humbled to be mentioned,” Hegseth said.
Only a single person contacted for this article wanted his name off the list: former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. “He is not running for governor,” Janna Hottinger, a longtime aide, said in an e-mail.
Most of the candidates who were willing to talk to the Star Tribune were nonetheless reluctant to say much about the race yet.
“I think these campaigns are way too long,” said Swanson, who has won three statewide races for attorney general. She said she’s had a lot of encouragement to run for governor but for now needs to focus on her current job.
“We just finished 600 days of a presidential campaign,” Swanson said. “The last thing people want right now is more campaigns.”