Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Why Tim Pawlenty and the DFL Endorsement Process Lost (and other political musings)

To the victor may belong the spoils, but it is from losers we often learn.  While the August 14, Minnesota primary yielded winners, much of the story is about those who lost, why, and what it means for state politics.  And perhaps the biggest theme from the primary is a literary allusion, taken from either Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again or Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah; Minnesota politics has changed and the way it was once done is not the way that will succeed now or in the near future.

Tim Pawlenty
It was always Pawlenty’s election to lose according to conventional wisdom and the establishment politicos.  And he did.  But there was always myth around Pawlenty that so many in the establishment bought into that they forgot that he never was really a good candidate during his career, simply lucky.

Remember the two times Pawlenty won the governorship he failed to receive more than 50% of the vote.  The first time he won he profited from misfortune.  Right before Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed back in 2002 he was locked in a tight three-way race with Roger Moe and Tim Penny.  Moe, the DFL establishment candidate, ran a horrible campaign. But when the plane crashed it realigned and polarized state politics, damaging Tim Penny  and helping Pawlenty win with 44% of the vote.  In 2006 with just days before the election Mike Hatch had a lead, but he melted down and Pawlenty won a close one-point victory over the former with only 46.7% of the vote.  Then of course Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign fizzled before it even started.

But despite all this Pawlenty and the establishment Republican Party–and by that the big money, especially from Wall Street when he worked for the last few years, and for those out of state–thought he could return to the state and win again.  Yet you can’t go home again.  Pawlenty came back to a state Republican Party that was no longer his–it was the party of Donald Trump.  It was a state where he had not won state-wide office in 12 years and where many no longer knew who Pawlenty was, or where his name was associated with the state’s $6 billion deficit he left.

State Republicans resented the idea that Pawlenty could simply waltz back into Minnesota with his big money backers, snub the party convention and nomination, and buy the primary.  Pawlenty and fellow travelers, such as Brian McClung, bought into the myth and thought  old name recognition and an astroturf money and media-driven campaign would be enough to elect him.  But  without a serious ground game and a state infrastructure, he lost to Jeff Johnson who had all this.  Pawlenty and his supporters remind one of Frank Skeffington, the losing mayoral character in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah.  Skeffington had won many elections and ran again for mayor, deploying the same old strategy he successfully used in the past. What he failed to realize is that times had changed and others had moved on while he had not.  This was Pawlenty.

While I had thought that Pawlenty would win this nomination, repeatedly I argued that the longshot bet of this primary would be a Johnson win, for essentially the reasons stated here.  Moreover, Pawlenty in 2018 reminded me of Walter Mondale in 2002.  When Wellstone died there were a host of good replacements for him such a Judy Dutcher and Alan Page.  But within minutes of the plane crash the Washington establishment thought of Walter Mondale.  He was a former senator, attorney general, vice-president, and presidential candidate, they all knew him in Washington and therefore he would surely win.  He too lost as a Skeffington candidate.

The DFL Endorsement Process
The DFL endorsement process for governor has been dead for nearly a half-century except the party has not figured it out yet.  The last time a DFL convention-endorsed candidate won the general election for governor when there was an open seat was 1970 with Wendell Anderson.  Yet again, the primary served as a check on flaws in the convention-process.

In general the DFL endorsement process took a major hit on August 14.  Yes Tina Smith and  Amy Klobuchar did win, but they were overwhelming favorites facing weak opposition.  But Erin Murphy and Matt Pelikan lost big.  With 32% of the vote, Murphy lost 2-1 as the endorsed candidate.  With not even 11%, Pelikan lost 9-1 (68% and 89% of the voters for the respective candidates voted for their opponents).   For both this might have been the worst drubbing ever for DFL-endorsed candidates, a major repudiation of the convention process.  For those who said one has to support DFL-endorsed candidates because they are endorsed, one needs to think again.  Loyalty and fidelity to the process are not enough, winability and actually being good candidates are important.
For both candidates, put on trial was a theory that one could win a state-wide part endorsement process merely with a Twin Cities or metro vote.  Maybe some day the demographics will produce that result, but that day has not arrived.  To win in Minnesota one still has to win statewide, not simply in the urban core.  Murphy and Pelikan supporters, and perhaps many at the DFL convention, live in a bubble and fail to realize that it is different outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  One cannot win outside of the cities with a strategy and campaign based on winning in the cites.  For Murphy, it was over as soon as she picked Erin Maye Quade as her running mate.  If voters judge you by the first decision you make–your selection as a running mate–Quade (an inexperienced metro candidate   from a district Democrats will probably lose)  was a disaster.  It sent a signal to greater Minnesota they did not matter.

Look at the numbers.  Murphy needed to win big in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties to have a chance winning statewide.  She only wins Ramsey with 42% of the vote and she lost Hennepin County.  She barely won the Fourth and Fifth Congressional Districts (Minneapolis and St. Paul Metro area), losing all the others, often with barely getting much more than 20% of the vote. She won only two counties out of 87 in Minnesota.  If one pours more deeply into the numbers, most of her support, and what little Pelikan received, came from  mostly inside Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Yet again, as Minneapolis and St. Paul goes, so does not go the rest of the state.  For te DFL to win statewide, one needs a strategy that is not urban centric.

Mike Hatch
The third big loser is Mike Hatch.  He did win as attorney general twice, but has lost as a gubernatorial candidate now three times.  In this election his candidates, Lori Swanson for governor and  Deb Hilstrom for attorney general, lost big.  Hatch’s time, like Pawlenty’s has passed.  This primary might have been a final rejection of his faction or hold on the DFL.

Ken Martin and the DFL Establishment
On the one hand we should feel sorry for Ken Martin.  It was not his fault the convention endorsed Murphy and Pelikan.  I doubt these were the candidates he would have thought as strongest or wanted to run a state-wide campaign..  Yet Martin’s track record as chair is mixed, depending on  your perspective.  In 2012  the party did well in taking back control of the legislature and in 2014 all the state-wide offices were won.    Yet the DFL lost the legislature two years and the party establishment backed Clinton in 2016, only to see her lose to Sanders and almost to Trump.   The prospects for winning back the Minnesota House and Senate are bleak, and it is possible that the DFL might lose at least one if not two US House seats.  Moreover, Omar’s victory over Kelliher is yet another sign that the old DFL guard’s grip on the party is weakening.  How much one can hold Martin personally responsible is a  matter for debate, but one can argue that if winning is the only things that matters (to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, the DFL Party has not delivered as well as it could .  In my election law seminar I asked the question "Who is the party?"  Is it the party chair, the candidates, caucus attendees, or  the voters?  Depending on the answer you provide you get different answers regarding who is repsonsible or given the credit for successes and failures.

There is a significant generational shift going on nationally and in Minnesota politics.  Both the GOP and DFL  are facing significant existential threats over the next decade as the old guard exit and a new generation arises.   One cannot live in the past, do what may have worked in the past,  or what works in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and expect it to work in the future or in the rest of the state.  One can’t go home again, and this primary was already past the last hurrah for a strategy and thinking that has passed.


  1. You say the endorsement is dead, and then ignore the fact that Ilhan Omar's receipt of the party endorsement was critical to her victory. Or do you really believe she was just such an amazing candidate?

    Pelikan getting trounced makes for a fun stat, but is bad data to back the hypothesis that the endorsement is dead. The AG race was a bizzaro outlier after Swanson's shenanigans. She could have still gotten it at the convention if she hadn't been scheming with hatch to go after the Governor's race, and certainly could have made it a "no endorsement" going into the primary) Pelikan just happened to be the the only candidate standing after Lori suddenly withdrew. Hardly a normal race or endorsement.

    Murphy lost a 3-way race much like MAK did in 2010, only the 3rd candidate this time was another woman who had a higher profile state-wide than Matt Entenza ever did, having been elected multiple times. This race actually reminds more of the 2006 AG race where a sudden shuffle left 3 candidates standing with a different gender split.

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