Lt. Gov. Tina Smith’s political connections and savvy quickly united Minnesota’s ideologically and geographically diverse DFL Party behind her as Al Franken’s replacement in the U.S. Senate. Those same attributes will become a main emphasis of attack by Republicans next year.
The day it became clear that continuing allegations of improper conduct toward women would force Franken to resign, Gov. Mark Dayton and his party faced an urgent challenge — picking a credible replacement and avoiding a grueling intraparty battle in a 2018 special election.
It was a situation that required a steady hand and a deep well of relationships across the spectrum, from business allies to labor leaders to progressive activists. “If there’s one person I think of as a person who can clean up a big mess, it’s Tina,” said Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26, who called Smith an old friend.
Moments before Dayton named Smith as his choice on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison made his own quiet announcement: He would not run for Franken’s seat next year. It sent a powerful message to DFL activists, particularly backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who see Ellison as an ally: The party’s top leaders are behind Smith.
Following Dayton’s introduction that day, Smith immediately revealed her intention to run for the seat in 2018. Other DFL candidates could still emerge to challenge her, but much of the DFL’s power structure has already united behind Smith.
Now, as the established DFL power player heads for the scrutiny of a multimillion-dollar statewide campaign, Minnesota Republicans will try to mount an appeal to voters who have recently seemed wary of establishment ties. President Trump won the White House on a message of antipathy toward elites, while Sanders won Minnesota in an insurgent campaign that hounded Hillary Clinton all the way to the Democratic convention.
“There’s that liberal, Minneapolis elite image she’s going to have a tough time shedding,” Mark Drake said of Smith. A one-time political aide to former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, Drake now operates his own public affairs firm.
Coleman, who lost the seat to Franken in the 2008 election, implied that Smith was pushed into declaring she would run next year by Democrats in Washington, D.C.
“Originally it was inferred, it was clear, she was not going to run,” Coleman said, in reference to the initial belief — never confirmed by the Dayton administration — that Smith would merely hold the seat through the November 2018 special election.
“But the very first thing she did was to take orders from Chuck Schumer,” said Coleman, now a Washington lobbyist, referring to the U.S. Senate minority leader. Dayton acknowledged discussing the appointment with Schumer, but said the decision was his alone.
What is clear is the exhaustive effort, under heavy time pressure, that a small coterie of Dayton and Smith aides and DFL operatives undertook in the week between Franken’s resignation and Dayton’s announcement. They placed hundreds of calls to allies in Minnesota and across the country, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort. They sought advice and gamed out scenarios, then locked down support for Dayton’s pick and orchestrated the rollout.
Although she ran for office just once — as the No. 2 on Dayton’s 2014 re-election ticket — Smith’s appointment won praise from a diverse cast of DFL allies, including the African-American DFL Caucus, a range of prominent unions and the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, which leans Republican.
“I don’t know many people who don’t like Tina, which is a remarkable feat in politics,” said Ken Martin, DFL Party chairman.
How it all happened so quickly and with so little rancor is no mystery, say people who know Smith and her history as a skilled political operative.
What’s yet to be seen is whether Republicans will be able to make this history a liability. A series of posts in business and advocacy, as an adviser to Walter Mondale, as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and then Dayton, has made Smith a consummate insider in an era of populist politics.
And, despite years circulating through executive suites and high-stakes legislative negotiations, Smith is not well-known to the public — a blank canvas on which Republicans will happily draw an unflattering portrait.
“It’s another political insider who will raise taxes on middle-class families,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the Republican-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition.
As Republicans mount their critique of Smith, the party must also recruit its own candidate to run against her — and it could very well be someone who boasts the same type of extensive political connections. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s name has been at the top of most lists, though he has been publicly noncommittal. With his own numerous runs for office, ties to GOP power brokers and recent work as a D.C. lobbyist, Pawlenty would not exactly project outsider appeal.
DFLers have been quick to defend Smith, who took questions at the announcement but was not granting interviews at the end of last week. Becky Zosia Dernbach, an activist and public affairs consultant, said painting Smith as an “insider” smells of sexism.
Women have worked on campaigns and causes for generations, Dernbach said, but were often relegated to the background. She said it’s frustrating “to see that really valuable experience dismissed as though it’s something shady.”
Although Smith is about to join perhaps the most egotistical club in the world, she got to where she is in large part by submerging her ego, content to be the one whispering advice and — most crucially — listening.
“I’ve known her a long time. She listens well, which is something people don’t do,” said Glen Johnson, who represents the Operating Engineers Local 49 — well outside Smith’s southwest Minneapolis home.
“She works hard at building relationships,” said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime DFL operative. By the end of last week, Smith was already placing calls to soon-to-be-colleagues in the Minnesota congressional delegation.
She stressed her eagerness to work with the rest of the delegation, said Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen. “The delegation gets along,” he said.
The challenge is whether Smith, who projects warmth in public but does not give stemwinder speeches, can develop a relationship with the broader Minnesota public.
DFLers say Smith is underrated as a campaigner, having traveled the state for years as Dayton’s chief surrogate, especially as he faced health problems. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who worked with Smith on a property tax cut for farmers to help school districts pass their bond issues, called her “one of the few metro elected officials who really understands rural Minnesota.”
Smith will have to campaign while getting up to speed on the Senate and an array of federal issues that have been outside her experience, like how to approach a relationship with a president who is widely loathed by the DFL base.
She will also have to raise millions of dollars for the 2018 race, with an eye on the 2020 race to win a full six-year term. And she’ll need to prepare for a set of debates that could make or break her campaign.
As she accepted Dayton’s appointment last week, Smith offered a long list of thank-yous, expressed resolve for the work ahead, and ran through a list of priorities — jobs, schools, health insurance, the Iron Range economy, racial and gender equity — that will slip easily into a campaign speech.
“I will do my best to earn Minnesotans’ support,’’ she said of next year’s election. “I believe the way to do that is by being the best senator I can be.”