U.S. Rep. Tim Walz joined next year's race for Minnesota governor on Monday, wagering that his success as a DFL politician in southern Minnesota offers the party a chance to improve its recent poor performance with voters outside the Twin Cities.
"I think I bring a unique skill set, like the proven ability to get things done working with other folks," Walz said in an interview with the Star Tribune, also citing his "passion for Minnesota."
The Mankato DFLer currently represents Minnesota's First Congressional District, extending from the Wisconsin to South Dakota borders and including cities like Rochester, Winona, Austin and Worthington. He was a high school geography teacher and recently retired command sergeant major in the Army National Guard in 2006 when, in his first run for public office, he unseated a Republican to win his seat in Congress.
Although Walz is not well known to voters outside his district, DFL power brokers had been hoping he would run for governor in 2018, given his proven success in greater Minnesota. The 2016 election found the DFL doing poorly outside the Twin Cities: President Donald Trump won 78 of the state's 87 counties despite narrowly losing the state as a whole, and the DFL lost its majority in the state Senate. Walz himself only narrowly hung on, winning re-election by just over 2,500 votes.
That's prompted hand-wringing by party leaders over how to better communicate with voters statewide, those who feel left out of the economic recovery or are struggling with higher health insurance premiums. Walz is positioned to make appeals to voters like that.
"People who don't know him will be surprised at his political skills and ability to connect," said Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26 and a well-connected DFLer. While emphasizing he's not endorsing at this time, Morillo called Walz "a great addition to the race."
Republicans hold a wide majority in the state House, and their new state Senate majority will last through 2020. That leaves much riding for the DFL on next year's governor's race, as it looks to hold back the full Republican control of state government that now prevails in all of Minnesota's neighboring states. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not running for re-election.
The Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a GOP-aligned group that helped Republicans build their legislative majorities, released a statement calling Walz a "Washington insider": "With his 10-year record as a liberal rubber stamp, Walz won't fool anyone when he claims he's a moderate," said John Rouleau, the group's executive director.
The attack attempts to pre-empt what is likely to be a Walz campaign message that he is not a typical DFLer. A gun owner, he has been supported by the NRA; in Washington he has focused on farm and military issues.
He was recently appointed the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Veterans Affairs.
While he barely squeaked by last year despite running against a poorly funded Republican, Walz ran well ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton, who lost the First District by 15 points.
He also withstood Republican electoral waves in 2010 and 2014.
DFLers first noticed Walz in 2004, when as a teacher and coach at Mankato West High School, he was stopped and briefly hassled by Republicans as he tried to bring several of his students into a campaign event for then-President George W. Bush (one had a John Kerry for president sticker). Two years later, he ran against and defeated longtime GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht.
If elected governor, Walz said, he would focus on issues like education, health care and transportation.
He said as a candidate, his first task will be to hear from Minnesotans, especially in the seven other congressional districts where he is largely unknown. Walz called the increasing geographic polarization of Minnesota politics a "false narrative" and touted his ability to bring Minnesotans together.
He also said watching Washington political dysfunction has given him a new appreciation for state government.
"A lot of important things are going to get done at the state level," Walz said.
Walz will have to get up to speed on Minnesota state government, which has a two-year budget of well over $40 billion, and about 34,000 people in its employ. On the biggest question facing state legislators this year — how to use a surplus of $1.65 billion — Walz said he would be judicious rather than commit to large tax cuts or spending increases.
"The [current] fiscal policy has put us in this position" of surpluses, he said. "But I would be cautious given the uncertainty in Washington," he added, referring to potential cuts in federal programs that could trickle down to the state.
Three other DFLers have officially joined the governor's race: state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Other candidates still considering it are U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Reps. Tina Liebling of Rochester and Paul Thissen of Minneapolis.
Murphy unveiled a list of endorsements Monday, including eight House DFL colleagues, an Iron Range mayor and former Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon.
No Republican has yet announced a run. Among those considering a bid are House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey, and a handful of state legislators including Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, Sen. David Osmek of Mound and Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake.
Both parties will meet in spring of 2018 to endorse a gubernatorial candidate. Asked if he would run in a primary without the DFL endorsement, Walz replied: "I expect to get it." Beyond that, he said he would wait and see.
Walz, who has been a proven fundraiser in the nation's capital, registered his campaign with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board in St. Paul on Monday, which allows him to begin fundraising for a state race. A large cash advantage could leave Walz able to run in the DFL primary even without the party endorsement.
Walz and his wife have two children and live in Mankato. A Nebraska native, he also spent time earlier in his life teaching American history in China.
With Walz departing the First District, Republicans will see the open seat as a prime pickup opportunity, and the race to replace him is likely to be hard fought as well.
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042