In the days leading up to the DFL state convention in Duluth, the widespread belief was that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak had established crucial momentum.
He’d emerged from a pack of contenders to become the chief rival to House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher for the party’s endorsement. He’d added key endorsements from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum in the run-up to the statewide gathering. Put Rybak in a convention hall packed with DFL activists, the conventional wisdom at the time went, and his boundless enthusiasm would eventually win over their hearts — and votes.
Of course, that’s not exactly how it played out. Kelliher led on all six ballots and exited the convention center with the party’s backing. Rybak went back to Minneapolis City Hall. In the end, organization trumped charisma. Kelliher earned the party’s nod through months of meticulous planning, a well-executed convention floor plan, loyal support from her fellow House members and a final boost from organized labor.
“The way you win conventions is by really building operations and building support senate district by senate district,” said Emma Greenman, Kelliher’s deputy campaign manager, who played a key role in the floor operation. “I think that’s also how you win a primary and a general. You’re just using different modes of operation.”
That theory will be tested next month when voters head to the polls for the DFL primary. If Kelliher is to win the August 10 primary, she’ll once again have to out-organize and out-work her two primary DFL rivals, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former state House Minority Leader Matt Entenza. Both are multimillionaires willing to spend massive amounts of their own cash on the gubernatorial contest. For weeks now, they’ve blanketed the airwaves with television commercials touting their campaigns.
By contrast, Kelliher didn’t get up on TV until this week, and she’s not expected to come anywhere close to matching the media buys of her two chief rivals. Instead she’s relying on a small, savvy campaign staff, advice from DFL elders who have been through many electoral wars and a cadre of traditional DFL constituency groups that includes unions and feminist groups. Kelliher is hoping that old-school, grassroots organizing can trump cold, hard cash.
Bob Vanasek is a former House Speaker who spent two decades in the Legislature. He hired Kelliher for her first job at the Capitol straight out of college and is now a trusted adviser. “The major advantage that she has that they don’t — and I think it’s going to be especially important in this election with the August primary, rather than the traditional post-Labor Day primary — is having a grassroots organization that will be able to identify her supporters and get them out to vote on election day,” said Vanasek. “If that is a successful effort, she should win. She’s not going to raise or spend as much money as her two opponents.”
Jaime Tincher didn’t set out to make a career in politics. In 2003, she was pursuing a master’s degree in Spanish and communications at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. As part of the program, Tincher spent a year in Mexico studying the revolutionary Zapatista movement in the country’s southern most state, Chiapas. She expected to eventually pursue a career in international humanitarian work.
But a conversation with a woman from Uganda about the failings of the Bush administration set her off in a different direction. Her view, as Tincher recalls it: “If you really want to effect change in this world, you should fix your own country.”
Tincher took that sentiment to heart and dove into electoral politics. Initially she worked for the voter mobilization group America Coming Together in her home state of West Virginia and then Florida. In 2005, she worked on the successful gubernatorial campaign of Tim Kaine in Virginia.
The following year Tincher came to Minnesota to help develop the DFL’s voter file. She was intrigued by the opportunity to use technology to more finely calibrate the tools of traditional grass-roots political organizing.
“The strength of the voter file is that we found a way to use it to integrate everyone and make sure that we’re taking that traditional organizing that has made the DFL so strong over the years and taking it to a new level because of the technology that we’re able to use,” Tincher said during an interview last week at Kelliher’s campaign headquarters in Minneapolis. “We’re door-knocking in a way that is maximizing everybody’s time. It eliminates inefficiencies. It allows for all of the volunteers to operate more as a huge effort altogether, instead of the work being done locally or in smaller groups.”
In the 2008 election cycle, Tincher led the DFL’s statewide coordinated campaign, working closely with Kelliher on the effort. When the House speaker began exploring a run for the state’s top post last year, Tincher signed on to be her campaign manager. “She’s one of the hardest working people that I know,” Tincher said of Kelliher. “She’s tenacious.”
Tincher’s intimate knowledge of the DFL’s voter file — known formally as the Voter Activation Network — will undoubtedly be a vital asset if Kelliher’s going to emerge as the primary winner. Perhaps no other individual in the state is better equipped to use the massive database to target voters effectively and efficiently. “She is one of the most experienced and talented players of that piano that there is out there,” said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, a key ally of the Kelliher campaign. “She knows it better than anyone else does.”
Winkler’s praise echoes that offered by DFL Party chair Brian Melendez in 2006. In a memo released after that year’s election, he wrote, “Last year, when we were hiring a new Voter File Manager, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called Jaime Tincher a ‘rock star.’… When the Democratic National Committee measured Jaime’s microtargeting, her modeling was the most accurate in the nation.”
Tincher’s top deputy on the campaign is Emma Greenman. She cut her electoral teeth on the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 re-election campaign. Subsequently she worked for the 21st Century Democrats, a political action committee, and then on Chris Coleman’s first mayoral campaign.
Greenman is a Minneapolis native, but she initially met Kelliher when both were enrolled at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. “She was really excited about the Minnesota connection,” Greenman recalled. “She worked for Wellstone and my first political campaign was for Wellstone. We shared that Minnesota, grass-roots connection.”
Greenman says she came out of “campaign retirement” to work for Kelliher. Her campaign portfolio principally includes policy research and communications strategy. “The nice thing about working with Jaime is we come from different places with different strengths,” Greenman said. “I think it reflects who Margaret is.”
Four years ago, when Attorney General Mike Hatch tripled up state Sen. Becky Lourey in the primary, roughly 316,000 individuals cast DFL ballots. Assuming turnout remains in that general ballpark this year, and considering that there are three viable candidates, it seems likely that the winner might need little more than 100,000 votes to advance to the general election.
“I believe you’re going to see an extremely low turnout,” said former Secretary of State Joan Growe, who is a co-chair of Kelliher’s campaign. “Therefore, while it would be wonderful to be on television 24 hours a day, that doesn’t get someone to the polling place. I think we have the best ground strategy of any campaign.”
But regardless of how adept at grassroots organizing and political micro-targeting the Kelliher campaign proves, it still needs sufficient funds to run a credible operation. No candidate — even with a cadre of dedicated volunteers — can door-knock or phone-bank the entire state. Everyone closely involved with Kelliher’s campaign insists publicly that there will be sufficient funds to compete vigorously. As of last week, the cash haul stood at more than $1 million. But how much of that money remains in the bank is an open question.
Though Liz Connor is the campaign’s finance director, Growe has taken a leading role on the fundraising front. She praises Kelliher’s diligence in dialing for dollars — a task that few (if any) politicians relish. “She has goals each week and she’s meeting or exceeding her goals,” said Growe. “She’s our best fundraiser.”
Kelliher’s position as the sole woman in the race has also helped ease the money crunch. Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democrats nationwide, endorsed her candidacy in December. The organization has some significant Minnesota ties. Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, previously served as campaign manager for Al Franken’s 2008 Senate campaign. And Jess McIntosh, Franken’s press secretary, recently announced that she’s also joining the organization. The group has helped Kelliher tap into out-of-state donors who otherwise would be difficult to target.
“We’re well known for our ability to help women candidates plan to raise the money that they need to compete successfully,” said Jen Bluestein, communications director for Emily’s List. “Our help in this particular race is so important because Margaret is facing two extraordinarily wealthy men who have already demonstrated an ability to spend millions of dollars.”
WomenWinning operates in a similar vein at the state level. The group has held two major fundraisers for Kelliher’s campaign, bringing in roughly $60,000. “They have entirely different names to contact, not necessarily tried and true Democrats,” said Growe.
In addition to her fundraising work, Growe has worked to assemble a group of veteran DFL insiders to provide advice from outside the campaign bubble. Among the participants: former Vice President Walter Mondale; former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, former House Speaker Bob Vanasek; influential lobbyists Ted Grindal, Kathleen Lamb and Andy Kozak; one-time state auditor Judi Dutcher; and former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Steve Kelley.
The informal group has been meeting roughly every two weeks to chew over the state of Kelliher’s campaign and discuss what changes might be made to bolster her prospects.
“We can sit around the table and be very candid,” said Growe. “You’re able to hear feedback from a wide variety of people and you get a broader perspective of what’s going on out there.”
A significant, ongoing concern about Kelliher’s campaign has been the lack of consistent messaging and a resulting lack of free media coverage. To help remedy this shortcoming, a member of the advisory group (Growe declined to name the individual) was dispatched to work directly with campaign staff. This resulted in a sharper focus on the need for job creation in recent weeks. The advisory group also helped connect Kelliher’s campaign with Sara Grewing, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s chief of staff, who’s been enlisted to help with debate preparation.
More formal organizations could also provide a key assist in Kelliher’s get-out-the-vote efforts. She has significant support from organized labor, including Education Minnesota, Unite Here Minnesota and the Minnesota Nurses Association. They’re expected to reach out to their members through mailings, phone calls and workplace visits.
“We’re doing it the old-fashioned way,” said Wade Luneburg, secretary and treasurer of Unite Here Minnesota. “We’re knocking on doors and we’re phoning people. Margaret cannot write checks to her own campaign. She’s a middle class mom who works hard.”
ReNEW Minnesota, the campaign being spearheaded by TakeAction Minnesota, could also provide a boost to Kelliher’s campaign. Some 2,000 individuals across the state have been involved with the effort to help elect a DFL governor for the first time in more than two decades.
The hope in the Kelliher camp is that all these various constituencies can work in unison to overcome the financial advantages of their two main rivals. “This is going to be a strange primary,” said Greenman. “It’s in the middle of the summer. That’s why it matters more that you’re really talking to voters and you’re talking to them over a long period of time. You’re talking to them in May, you’re talking to them in June, you’re talking to them in July, and then you’re turning them out in August. That’s why a field operation and a ground game really matters.”