About the time Tuesday night when Jeff Johnson took an insurmountable lead over Tim Pawlenty and Tim Walz left Lori Swanson hopelessly in third place, the 2018 primary election’s message hit me: It isn’t 2006 in Minnesota anymore.
I can put away the 2006 gubernatorial election file I’d dug up, the one detailing how Republican Gov. Pawlenty surged to a second-term victory ahead of DFLer Mike Hatch — Swanson’s political mentor — who’d been hobbled in the campaign’s final days by a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease.
The relevance of that 12-year-old story had slipped away. Instead of Swanson vs. Pawlenty — the matchup that seemed likely only a few weeks ago — this year’s main event in state politics will be DFLer Walz vs. Republican Johnson.
Pawlenty’s bid for a third term had ended at the hands of his own Republican Party’s voters. Swanson discovered, as had Hatch, that being a popular attorney general doesn’t guarantee success in gubernatorial politics. (It never has. A quirk in state political annals is that while many have tried, no attorney general has gone on to serve as governor.)
In the party nomination choices voters made for governor and other offices, the changes in Minnesota in the last dozen years were plain to see, once I looked for them.
The number of voters was up, as it should be: Minnesota has gained more than 413,000 people since 2006, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Candidates of color made history, as they should: The nonwhite share of the state’s population reached nearly 19 percent in 2016, up from 14.6 percent in 2009 (the closest years to 2006 and 2018 for which comparison data were available).
By fits, starts and a #MeToo movement, women are more fully sharing the rights and responsibilities of adulthood with men, and it showed in record numbers of women seeking office. The state’s first all-female contest for a U.S. Senate seat, Democratic incumbent Tina Smith vs. Republican challenger Karin Housley, went on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Economic change — or the lack thereof — also was a factor in this primary, I’ll claim. The ever-helpful folks at the state demographer’s shop report that Minnesota’s median age rose and its population became better educated on average between 2009 and 2016. No doubt, Minnesotans expected their incomes to climb, too. But despite this state’s relatively rapid rebound from the Great Recession and an unemployment rate that fell below 4 percent in 2016, median household income in that seven-year span actually dropped slightly when adjusted for inflation: $63,780 in 2009, $63,217 in 2016.
Numbers like that translate to voter frustration and a willingness to shake up the status quo. They say a lot about why Donald Trump, who said he would be a champion for “the forgotten,” came close to carrying Minnesota in 2016. And they help explain why Minnesota’s Republican primary voters opted for the gubernatorial candidate they saw as more nearly in sync with Trump.
The national media seized upon the fact that Pawlenty had called Trump “unhinged and unfit” after the “Access Hollywood” recording about grabbing women broke in October 2016. Minnesota Republicans didn’t cotton to such talk, the out-of-state scribes wrote.
Maybe so. But what may have mattered more was that voters saw Pawlenty as a candidate of 2006, not 2018.
Two terms as governor and a bid for the presidency had made Pawlenty an exemplar of the Republican establishment that Trump set out to overthrow. Nearly six years as a seven-figure-per-year trade association exec for the financial services industry cast the former governor as a creature of the Washington swamp that Trump used to say he would drain.
The misleading attack ads Pawlenty aired about Johnson reminded GOP voters of what they don’t like about politics as usual. The ads that the DFL’s allies broadcast about Pawlenty showed those same voters that a decade-old gubernatorial record can be a heavy burden to carry into a general election contest.
The would-be Comeback Kid tried to make his campaign about the future by talking a good deal about artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and other dawning technological wonders. But he occasionally reprised his talking points from 2002 and 2006. At Farmfest on Aug. 8, for example, he said Minnesota should be kinder to job creators, reducing their taxes and easing regulations. Minnesotans’ plea, he said, is “Please, get the government off my back.”
Maybe it once was. This year, I’ve heard Minnesotans in both parties wishing for a government that’s on their side.
Minnesotans disagree about what that means, of course. That disagreement will be at the heart of the Johnson vs. Walz contest in the next 12 weeks.
But I’ll venture that, more clearly than they did in 2006, Minnesotans see that a strong economy alone isn’t sufficient to generate the state they want. A positive gross state product does not guarantee that wages will rise, health care and higher education will be affordable, child care will be available, vulnerable adults will be protected, kids of all classes and colors will be well educated, drinking water will be pollution-free and bridges won’t fall down.
The last dozen years of Minnesota’s shared life have shown as much. Voters will be looking for a candidate for governor who has lived and seen that, too, and has an up-to-date response.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.