Friday, September 10, 2010

Forget Bachmann/Clark, The Real Focus Should be Minnesota's Third District

Political pundits and analysts need to take a new look at Minnesota’s third congressional district race pitting DFL challenger Jim Meffert seeking to unseat first term GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen. Democrats have a far better chance picking up this seat than they do knocking off Michelle Backmann with Tarryl Clark.

The Futile Effort to Beat Bachmann
There is virtually no chance the Democrats will defeat Bachmann. I have argued this for months. Bachmann’s sixth district seat is apportioned approximately six points ahead for Republicans. She is a conservative candidate in a conservative district. She is the Tea Party leader in a Tea Party GOP year. She fits her district well and has already survived several attempts to knock her off in previous years (most recently '08) more favorable to Democrats. Democrats would be better served to wait until 2012, after reapportionment, when new lines may change the Sixth and make it more competitive, or when Bachmann makes the foolish move to run for the senate againt Klobuchar and gets waxed by her.

Yet Democrats cannot resist themselves. Democrats from around the country are pouring millions into this race and yet there is no evidence that Clark is catching up or gaining ground. Yes, Democrats have to challenge her and force her to campaign at home so that she does not travel and fundraise and campaign for others. But from a cost-benefit perspective, pouring millions here makes no sense. Sure there might be a symbolic victory in knocking her off, but with Democrats having to defend so many seats and having to decide where to best spend, resources need to be placed where it makes the most sense. That is why Minnesota’s Third District makes more sense.

Minnesota’s Third District
Minnesota’s Third District is a moderate suburban area mainly encompassing the western suburbs of Minneapolis. For years it was represented by Republican Jim Ramstad who had a reputation as a moderate. In 2008 he did not seek reelection and the seat looked ripe for Democrats to pick up. After all, many of the state seats in that district were occupied by Democrats.

The ideal Democrat I argued was a moderate pro-choice and perhaps female candidate. I thought that State Representative Melissa Hortman or State Senator Terri Bonoff were perfect profile candidates for the district then, but Melissa did not run and Terri’s campaign did not see Ashwin Madia coming. Ashwin did a great job organizing and hunting delegates.

In the end, the Democrats picked Aswin Madia, a political novice, Iraq vet who ran again the war. He challenged Erik Paulsen, a 10-year conservative state legislator. Paulsen won, mostly by hiding his conservative credentials and running as a moderate. Additionally, Madia ran out of steam in October '08, especially when the war as an issue was waning and the economy became the focus. Madia did not do a good job pivoting from war to the economy and he lost his message at a critical time. Finally, the race had a Independence Party candidate who, on election day, took about ten percent of the vote. The result? Paulsen won by eight points.

Since election, Paulsen has spoken moderate but voted right. He has a voting record nearly identical to Bachmann’s, voting with her over 90% of the time. He has no real accomplishments to show, and about the only news about him has been how he appeared to gouge the House franking privilege by sending out hundreds of thousands of dollars in mail to his constituents, at taxpayer expense.

More importantly, for a moderate district, his voting record is way to the right of where most of the voters are.

Too many people have heard me argue that campaigns are won or lost based on how well you capture the swing voter. The most critical swing voter in Minnesota remains the suburban mom with kids–the soccer mom. These women are less and less likely to vote GOP because of its agenda. These women are worried about family issues–early childhood ed, K-12, jobs, and health care for their children. Minnesota’s Third District is soccer mom heaven. It is heavily dominated by soccer moms in the suburbs, and they are ready to swing.

Some analysis and polls suggest Paulsen’s agenda is way out of line with voters here. Less than half have a favorable view of him, with many outright unwilling to vote for him again were there a choice. This is where Jim Meffert comes in.

Who is Jim Meffert?
Jim Meffert is a terrific candidate for the third district, if only he could get the attention of the media, Democrats, and the voters. He is a St. Olaf grad, serving there as the president of the college Republicans. He became a Democrat because, like the soccer moms of his district, he saw the GOP moving in a direction he did not like. Jim has worked with the PTA and on education issues, he comes from peace and justice wing of the religious community, and he talks of government and business working together to solve problems. All of these are perfect themes for this district.

Final Thoughts
Yet so far his race has not received the attention it deserves. Democrats are too preoccupied with Bachmann, in part because she is a fundraising tool. She is the bogey(wo)man they can use to raise money. Keith Olbermann and MSMBC give her too much attention, in large part to hype their own ratings. Too much media attention is focused on Clark and Bachmann, like the train wreck we cannot resist watching. Or it reminds me of that old commercial–“I have fallen and can’t get up.” Here, the media and Democrats cannot resist covering or giving money in this race. They seem foolishly fixed on the race. Yes it may be sexy to cover or think about it. But if the real goal of Democrats is to win races, the right mix of money, media, and luck could make this a real race and seat they could win.


  1. There is no chance the democrats can beat Bachmann, but Independent Candidate Bob Anderson CAN!

  2. David, you're not wrong, just 3-6 months too late for it to matter. Paulsen is probably not even going to mention his opponent's name at this point and Democrats have so completely written off the race that Meffert's just not going to have the resources to even smoke him out in hopes of an October surprise gaffe happening.

    It's too bad, but a serious number of political geniuses in this state decided that when the DFL lost the open seat race there was no reason to try and compete in CD3 this year. Their (foolish) mantra: wait for redistricting!

    I wish Jim Meffert all the luck in the world, but he needed some allies to get on board this summer, not wait until after Labor Day to pay attention.

  3. Jim Meffert is, as the Professor says, a great candidate for the Third District, the best one we've run in a long time.

    Here's a link to a video of his appearance at Drinking Liberally before the endorsing convention this spring:

  4. 1 of 2 - Professor, you may be right about the 6th. Time will tell on that one, but I quarrel with several of your assertions about the 3rd. First, you're quite correct that Hortman and Bonoff were picture perfect for the 3rd and, no, Bonoff didn't see Ashwin Madia coming. But shame on the 3rd DFL for not getting Madia, either. Ashwin ran on a hot speaking style, loaded with DFL red meat, and on having his ticket punched in Iraq. That's about it. Ashwin peaked during the Senate District conventions in March of 2008. By the CD3 convention in April, he was losing delegates and squeaked out a win over Bonoff by a handful of votes after many ballots. His only subsequent achievement was raising a lot of money from people who should have known better. He didn't "run out of steam" in October. He simply failed to execute the full 180-degree turn that would have been necessary for him to move from pandering to the DFL left in January and February to finding a completely different message for a completely different audience in the real election.

    I'm sure you're aware that Iraq vets running as Democrats had a dismal record of success in 2006, and did little to improve that record in 2008. Iraq was never the issue either Ashwin or the 3rd CD DFL thought it was. In the 3rd, there are only two issues, always. Issue Number One is are you going to keep my taxes down, spend the money wisely and thereby grow the private economy. Issue Number Two is are you going to protect and enhance education. Issue Number Three never happens. Ashwin's knowledge was paper thin on One and Two and on almost all the issues, however significant, that had any effect in the 2008 election. For Ashwin, the economy was a collection of sound bites. So was education. So was energy, infrastructure, tax policy, etc. For middle road CD3 voters, whom I've found to be a remarkably thoughtful and discerning group, an Ashwin DFL hot rah-rah speech was a non-starter, and his lack of substance on the issues made it impossible for him to finish. Ashwin's goose was cooked by the time he won the CD3 endorsement. It didn't help that he was barely a resident of the district, absent wife, kids and mortgage, and that his campaign seemed a little shaky, even a little shady, at times, but he never had a chance, even without those additional drawbacks.

    All this is prologue, of course, to your consideration of the current DFL candidate, Jim Meffert. Jim is also a weak candidate, far from "terrific," for some similar reasons and some reasons different from Ashwin's. Jim has family and history in the district. He also has a credential in his PTA history, which helps him with Issue Number Two. Unlike complete neophyte Madia, he's actually spent some time around the legislative branch of government, and has a clue how it works. Unfortunately, his time around government has been spent mostly as a lob-be-ist, something you won't find mentioned in his campaign literature. Also unfortunately, Meffert's grasp of the detail and nuance of the larger issues is limited and, like Madia, he failed to focus on the winning issue (hint: it's Issue Number One) after winning the DFL endorsement. As well, Jim has failed to raised money in amounts anywhere near those Madia achieved. Erik Paulsen, stuffed like a turkey with corporate cash, can outspend Meffert by a ratio of many-to-one.

  5. 2 of 2 - The smart money has steered away from CD3 and Meffert this year for good reasons. The DFL demonstrated in 2008 that it was capable of sufficiently bad judgment that it could spend $2.5 million of other people's money and still lose by 8 points. Once bitten, twice shy for the big donors, but this logic applies to the candidates, too. Meffert's only competition for the endorsement was a similarly green Maureen Hackett. Experienced candidates such as Bonoff and Hortman (and who knows who else?) stayed away in droves. Like the donors, the candidates were once bitten, twice shy of risking their own careers by proposing to hold hands and jump off an electoral cliff with a DFL party unit that had made such a wasteful choice just two years earlier.

    Finally, Erik Paulsen is a shrewd political animal. He's running on his strengths, and he's spent the better part of his first congressional term carefully camouflaging his weaknesses. He's very much on the same page as those middle roaders regarding taxes and the economy. As an added benefit, he's on the opposite side of the ticket from Mark Tax-the-Rich Dayton, and doesn't carry anything like Meffert's burden of defending Mark's agenda in Minnesota's richest congressional district. True, he's no friend of public education, but he talks a good game, and he's taken enough carefully calculated votes that the case against him as an enemy of education is hard to make. Yes, he votes with Michele Bachmann 93% of the time, but you'll have a hard time convincing me that's a deal-maker or -breaker for the deciding CD3 voter.

    CD3 is still naturally Republican, particularly as we go up the ticket. Ex-gov Pawlenty has carried the district twice by double digits. McCain lost here, but McCain was a terrible candidate, with terrible Minnesota support. You'll recall that McCain only narrowly beat Ron Paul in the 2008 caucus vote, and that the Minnesota Paul supporters pointedly refused to fall into line behind him afterwards. Closer to home, you may cite the growing presence of DFLers in CD3 State Senate and House seats, but those electeds are in the retail politics business. Many of them knock on half or more of their districts' doors in a campaign year, getting to meet double-digit percentages of their constituents up close and personal. Those face-to-face meetings make the subsequent votes a lot more personal, too. Running for congress is not retail politics.

    For all these reasons, and more, Jim Meffert is not a strong candidate, and the smart money is smarter than you think in avoiding him. Erik Paulsen will run against Washington. As a minority freshman, he will get away with it. Erik Paulsen will trot out those four blonde daughters again and again, showing us the pictures that trump, in the reptilian mind, a thousand position papers. Erik Paulsen will refuse to debate What's-His-Name (in fact, he did exactly that just today), and What's-His-Name will remain What's-His-Name.

    So I have to disagree with your effort to polish the Meffert apple, earnest as it may be. That's not where I would put my money if I had the kind of money to influence elections. Whether the Clark effort is a good bet remains to be seen. Tarryl is the underdog, and Bachmann has enough money to start her own hedge fund, but Bachmann is volatile enough to blow herself up, too. She very nearly did that in 2008 and, had the challenger been Clark rather than the somewhat flummoxed El Tinklenberg, the verdict might have been different. I wouldn't bet the farm on either a Clark or Meffert victory at this point but, if I had a few benjamins to toss at good odds, I'd take a flier on Tarryl and the chance she'd maximize the advantage her opponent gave her. Paulsen, on the other hand, has zero chance of self-immolation. It's an extremely safe bet that Erik Paulsen will continue to play it extremely safe until the second week of November, and probably for a long time after that.

  6. Dipper;

    No candidate is ideal, I agree, and all have their limits. "Smart" money may be staying away from Meffert,but at some point smart money has to say enough with the Bachmann race. The recent channel 5 poll shows Bachmann with an unchanged 9 point lead over Clark. DCCC needs to ask whether money should continue to go into this race versus Meffert or other races around the country. I do not disagree with you on many counts, but I also think the DFL should not have given up on Paulsen before the race even started. It is as if they gave him the election without even trying.

  7. Josh:

    It is late in the game but Meffert is not out of it yet. I agree the DFL should have been gaming this race at least 3-6 months ago.

  8. Professor, raising money is a skill at which any politician running for national office must be proficient. Meffert is obviously not. Spend some time with him, and you'll also discover he's a dogmatic strategist and a poor listener. Whether he's taken bad advice, ignored good advice or some combination of the two is an open question, but all of this, combined with his thin resumé and almost non-existent campaign experience, made him easy to blow off early.

    National money is flowing to Clark because a Clark win would be a major national win for Democrats. Even if Meffert's chances were as good as Clark's, a Meffert win would be barely a blip on the national radar. I maintain that Clark's chances are better than Meffert's. I've seen this movie before. In 2008, I fought it out with the "experts" about the quality of Madia's candidacy. I was proven correct by the voters. At this point Meffert is grasping at straws to rationalize his campaign, as I believe, with respect, are you.