Analysts tussle over election outlook at PIM-sponsored election preview

by Charley Shaw
Politics In Minnesota
Published: August 13,2010

Hours after Tuesday’s DFL primary, the Minnesota GOP launched a TV ad attack calling DFLer Mark Dayton “erratic” and wondering out loud what frequency he was on.

The GOP’s speedy strike is a harbinger of mudslinging to come – or so said the bipartisan panel of political experts assembled by Politics in Minnesota/Capitol Report for a Wednesday afternoon gathering at downtown St. Paul’s University Club.

“I think the race is going to go negative early. It’s going to stay negative for a while, and then I think it will tone down near the end and spike back up again,” said retiring state Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague.

Brod was joined on the panel by fellow Republican Gregg Peppin and DFLers Darin Broton and David Lillehaug.

The panelists said they expect well-heeled independent groups to take advantage of post-Citizens United campaign spending rules to pour more money into the gubernatorial race than campaigns and state political parties will be able to match. These third-party spenders, said Broton, are poised to shape the governor’s race.

“I think it will be negative depending on the level of special interest money that flows into this,” he told the audience. “I think that will set the tone for this cycle.”

While political pros are busy right now reading tea leaves, they are upset about how polls and historical voter turnout data contradicted Tuesday evening’s primary results.

Lillehaug said turnout on Tuesday was larger than anticipated and the polls predicted a wider lead for Dayton over DFL-endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher than actually materialized.

Everyone misjudged turnout

“News organizations need to make more money so they can spend it on better polls,” joked Lillehaug, a Kelliher supporter who had initially backed Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in the DFL endorsement race.

Lillehaug noted that in the 1998 contested DFL primary for governor, 415,000 Democrats turned out. In the 2000 DFL primary battle that Dayton won, 433,000 Democrats turned out. Though expectations for this year’s primary voter turnout were low because of the date change from September to August, 440,000 DFLers cast ballots.

“Everyone was saying we were going to have a substantial drop-off from that. Au contraire,” Lillehaug said.

Regarding Kelliher’s 7,000-vote loss to Dayton, Democrat Broton said one lesson is that the Iron Range still matters. “I think over the last few cycles we’ve seen the percentage of [Iron Range] DFL voters in the primary keep shrinking and shrinking while the percentage in the metro picks up,” he said.

“[On Tuesday] we saw the reverse happen. The DFL primary voters on the Range showed up in massive numbers. They were still high in the Twin Cities but nowhere could they have countered the massive turnout on the Range,” Broton said.

During the audience question segment, attendees wanted to know why the DFL-endorsed candidate and current speaker of the state House lost to Dayton, whose political career had been dormant since he left the U.S. Senate after one undistinguished term.

The answer, according to Lillehaug, was that Kelliher didn’t do enough to challenge Dayton’s simple but effective message.

After the April DFL Convention in Duluth, said the former Clinton-era U.S. attorney, Kelliher “essentially sat on her hands for about two months from a message-development standpoint. Finally there was the minimum wage issue with Representative Emmer that got them going. Even then, it was a week or so before she got the hotel servers up next to her and really took after him on the minimum wage.”

On the point of Kelliher’s lack of message, the Republicans on the panel agreed.

“I think she is regretting, or should be regretting, the fact that she did not define the differences between her and Dayton very early and very continuously and very strongly,” Brod said.

And what about Entenza’s influence on the outcome?

Peppin noted that Entenza did well in southwestern Minnesota counties like Nobles and in blue-collar Twin Cities areas like Minneapolis Wards 4 and 5. Peppin said Kelliher could have possibly wrested nearly 7,000 votes from Entenza if she had done more to contrast herself to him.

“Margaret can plausibly make the case that Entenza cost her the election,” Peppin said.

The Horner factor

With Entenza gone from the picture, the spoiler question shifts to Independence Party nominee Tom Horner.

Horner lines up politically closer to Entenza and Kelliher than to Dayton, Peppin said, and as a result Dayton could lose highly educated, affluent Democratic voters to Horner.

“I believe there are more egg-head, limousine liberals who will go from Dayton to Horner, than there are moderate Republicans that will from Emmer to Horner,” Peppin added.

Independence Party candidates, such as Tim Penny in 2002 and Peter Hutchinson in 2006, have been regarded as spoilers for Democrats. Lillehaug said that Horner hasn’t done enough yet to define his position in the race.

“I don’t really understand the rationale for the candidacy except he’s not left or right. I don’t think he’s going to get much more than any other Independence Party candidate, certainly not as much as Tim Penny,” Lillehaug said.

Legislative races

The panelists also weighed in on the races for Minnesota House and Senate.

Peppin and Brod expressed high hopes for Republicans in the state Senate, who are seeking to win back a chamber they have not controlled in the past 40 years. They’re expecting strong challenges, for example, from former Sen. Sean Nienow’s campaign against Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, and from newspaper publisher Ted Lillie’s run against Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.

“[Senate Republicans have] kind of languished over time and have become the perpetual minority,” Brod said. “I’ve seen some excitement in the Senate where they’re not OK with being the perpetual minority anymore.”

Broton conceded that Red Wing Mayor John Howe, a Republican who is running for the District 28 seat being vacated Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing, and Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, who is running to replace DFL Sen. Jim Vickerman of Tracy in SD 22, will probably win. But Broton said the Senate GOP’s campaign is underfunded.

“The Senate is probably a better opportunity for Republicans than the House. The problem that the Senate Republican Caucus has is they’re broke,” he noted.

The House will experience a “correction” that will cut down the size of its 87-47 DFL majority by a net 10 seats, Broton added. But he went on to say many young House DFL incumbents have gone through two election cycles in the majority that has afforded them time “to build deep roots in their community.”

From a GOP standpoint, Brod characterized the results of the legislative primaries as “ho hum.”

“I don’t know if there’s a story to be told,” she offered, “other than being endorsed matters on the Republican side of the aisle.”

Lillehaug delivered one of the best zingers of the afternoon when he noted that Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, lost after a controversy over fishing restrictions and Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, lost an intra-party battle in which he drew fire for being openly gay.

“Before the primary season a few months ago, if you would have said there’s one incumbent who would have gone down because of a gay porn star and there’s going to be another incumbent who goes down because of a walleye scandal, [could you] choose which party is which?” Lillehaug said.