With a toss-up Governor’s race, two races for the U.S. Senate, and four of the country’s most hotly contested Congressional races; Minnesota was already ground zero for the 2018 midterm elections. But recent upheaval within the Minnesota Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party threatens to stall anti-Trump momentum in the North Star State and create new opportunities for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.
The DFL’s decision not to endorse Attorney General Lori Swanson should serve as an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. After being snubbed by her own party, Swanson set out to extract her revenge by jumping into the DFL gubernatorial primary, which set off the avalanche of political twists and turns that dominated the news this week.
The primary field to replace Swanson runs the gamut from obscure (endorsed candidate Matt Pelikan), to better well known (State Rep. Debra Hilstrom – Brooklyn Center) But the biggest name in the field is of Congressman Keith Ellison, progressive darling who also serves as Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee. His presence looms large in the primary where he is the front runner, particularly with a hyper-competitive primary to fill his newly vacated Congressional Seat in a district that historically provides the most primary votes to statewide DFL totals. Additionally, his ties to Bernie Sanders and the DNC will undoubtedly ensure he is well-funded heading into August.
Suffice to say, Ellison’s presence on the ballot this fall would be a gift to Republicans all across the state, who could use this Bernie Sanders acolyte to turn out conservatives who may otherwise skip the midterm elections, particularly in Greater Minnesota.
Going into this past weekend’s respective party conventions, DFL operatives and their allies could hardly contain their exuberance of a contested GOP gubernatorial primary as they gathered in Rochester to clear the path for Congressman Tim Walz.
But State Representative Erin Murphy (Saint Paul) had other plans.
In a tense showdown, Murphy, former House Majority Leader, edged out Walz for the DFL endorsement. To make matters worse for Congressman Walz, Lori Swanson entered the fray along with her running mate, Congressman Rick Nolan. Tim Walz maybe could have edged out Murphy in a one-on-one primary, but Swanson’s entry into the race is devastating for his chances, as they are likely to split the vote in Greater Minnesota, while Murphy will be able to carry the Minneapolis-St. Paul vote. If Murphy wins the nomination, Republicans will have the upper hand this fall.
Expect this primary to be a big financial drain on the DFL apparatus, with the party protecting Murphy and various liberal factions spending big to see their chosen nominee makes the November ballot. In many respects, Murphy’s candidacy echoes that of John Marty in 1994. Embraced by an out of touch and insular group of far-left activists, Marty won the 1994 DFL endorsement and primary but was trounced in the general election.
Keith Ellison’s record in Congress will undoubtedly be under the microscope in his race for Attorney General, which will put it at the forefront of the minds of voters thinking about federal races, and give Republican Congressional candidate ample opportunities to tie their opponents to Ellison and his record. While the Minneapolis-based Fifth Congressional District is out of reach for Republicans in November, the primary here will have lingering effects on the electorate this fall. For starters, this primary features a number of heavy-hitters within the DFL – rising star, State Representative Ilhan Omar (Minneapolis), former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Julie Sabo (daughter of longtime Congressman Martin Olav Sabo) – all of whom will have access to ample campaign funds. If the primary is fought on Twin Cities airwaves, expect Republican candidates to be the beneficiaries when the DFLers try to out-liberal each other.
Minnesota House of Representatives
A twenty-seat majority was already insulating Speaker Daudt and the House GOP Caucus from the challenges other Republicans faced this fall. Several retirements by DFLers in potentially competitive districts – Rep. Clark Johnson (St. Peter), Rep. JoAnn Ward (Woodbury), Rep. Jon Applebaum (Minnetonka) and Rep. David Bly (Northfield) – was taken by Capitol observers as a sign that a defeatist mentality was prevalent within the minority caucus. A total of 16 of the 57 DFL members serving in the House are not running for re-election to the legislature, nearly 30% of the DFL caucus.
To make matters worse, there were two last-minute retirements by DFL members in swing districts the GOP is well positioned to capitalize on:
- State Rep. Erin Maye Quade (Apple Valley) – Maye Quade’s last-minute decision to join the Murphy gubernatorial ticket puts district 57A on the top of MN Republican’s target list. The district was one of only two seats House Republican’s previously held and lost in 2016. Local DFLers were outraged by the last minute opening, and no less than five Democrats filed for this office on Tuesday. This crowded inter-party race of untested, unvetted candidates provides Republicans with an excellent pickup opportunity in the suburbs.
- State Rep. Paul Rosenthal (Edina) – Rosenthal announced his retirement with just an hour left in the filing period. Recent Republican victories in Edina and Bloomington (50B Special Election) proves the GOP can be competitive here, further adding to the House DFL electoral woes.
Senate President Michelle Fischbach’s ascension to the office of Lt. Governor put the State Senate theoretically in play. The potential of retaking control of the Senate seemed enticing enough to keep Senator Minority Leader Tom Bakk (Cook) out of the DFL race for governor. However, it is highly unlikely that the DFL will be able to flip control of the upper chamber for two reasons. Frist, this is a strong GOP district Lt. Gov. Fischbach carried with 68% in the last election. Second, and most importantly, GOP turnout in this GOP district will be strong since the special election will be on the same day as the 2018 general election.
None of this is lost on members of the DFL – just look what party strategists, DFL grassroots activists, and political analysts have been saying about the impact of this past weeks events:
- “It’s a shitshow,” – Minnesota Democratic Strategist (Molly Hensley-Clancy “Keith Ellison’s Last-Minute Move Throws Minnesota Politcs Into Chaos” Buzzfeed News, June 5, 2018)
- “’I know, let’s make this crazier!’ said no democrat anywhere.” – Javier Morillo, President of SEIU 26 on a three-way DFL primary for Governor and Mike Hatch and Congressman Ellison running for Attorney General (Twitter)
- “I’ve been to a lot of conventions and I’ve seen the F and the L not matter to delegates over time but this weekend was something else.” – Adam Duininck, North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and former DFL strategist (Twitter)
- “Seriously though, what a failure in leadership by the DFL. What a cluster.” – Minneapolis DFL Activist David Kaplan (Twitter)
- “When [Murphy] came to make her choice on the last day of the convention, she didn’t seem to take into account basic electoral math… as the LG candidate, [Maye-Quade] will have to leave her seat open and that puts this particular seat at risk because it is a swing district.” – DFL Blogger and SD57 officer Dave Mindeman (Dave Mindeman “ A Story About Why Dems Lose Elections” MN Political Roundtable, June 3, 2018)
- “With 157 days left we don’t have time to be spending fighting each other,” – DFL Chairman Ken Martin (John Croman “Murphy Captures DFL Endorsement For Governor” KARE 11, June 3, 2018)
- “We can’t wait until August 15 to start taking on Tim Pawlenty and the Republicans,” – DFL Chairman Ken Martin (Peter Callaghan “DFL Endorses Erin Murphy For Governor” MinnPost, June 2, 2018)
- “They would really be doing us a disservice in our chances to hold that seat in November if they’re spending gobs of money beating each other up and focusing the conversation on those small differences that divide us,” – DFL Chairman Ken Martin on a primary in Congressional District 8 (Jesse Van Berkel “DFL Confronts Scrambled Race to Defend Nolan Seat in Northeastern Minnesota” Star Tribune, April 16, 2018)
- “You have an all-in philosophy that seems to ignore geography, history and political pragmatism.” – Political Commentator and Former DFL Strategist Blois Olson (Blois Olson “Swanson-Nolan Could Shake Up The DFL’s Entire Ticket” MorningTake, June 4, 2018)
What It Means
Historically, midterm elections deliver losses for the party in power and special election results in 2017-18 have indicated this trend may continue. Just last night a Republican was defeated in Missouri leading a GOP consultant to say “every suburban Republican should be petrified tonight. This devastating loss signals they could lose this fall.” Earlier in the cycle, senior GOP strategist Ward Baker warned “it’s time for the GOP to wake up. We must run smarter, data-driven campaigns built for 2018. No one wants another 2006.”
While this week’s developments are a positive shift for Minnesota Republicans, nothing should be taken for granted. So long as Minnesota Republicans continue to make needed investments in infrastructure, paid communications and execute their strategy effectively, they will be well positioned for success up and down ballot in November.
John Rouleau, MN Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund Executive Director