As the election results began rolling in on Tuesday night, the mood was ebullient at Jax Café in Northeast Minneapolis. Even as torrential rains swamped Minneapolis, soggy, red-shirted supporters of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher filed into the banquet room and bars of the renowned steakhouse. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich repeatedly took to the podium to offer updates on the Minnesota Twins’ pounding of the Chicago White Sox, as if it ordained victory for the DFL-endorsed candidate.
The reason for the festive atmosphere was plain for all to see as a large screen projected the latest results of the gubernatorial contest from the Secretary of State’s web site. Despite polls that had repeatedly shown former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton with a substantial lead in the DFL primary, early returns put Kelliher up by double digits. Perhaps, the buzz at Jax suggested, the DFL-endorsed candidate’s much-ballyhooed ground game wasn’t just campaign spin.
As the clocks approached 9:30 p.m., U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar took to the podium. She touted results from precincts in Eden Prairie that Kelliher carried convincingly. But she also presaged a potential problem for Kelliher. “We have a lot of metro numbers now, but it’s very exciting,” Klobuchar said. “If we do this tonight it’s a grassroots win.”
Translation: Results from Dayton’s strongest regions had yet to surface. Sure enough, Kelliher’s lead began evaporating almost immediately. At about the same time, the weather briefly knocked the power out at Jax. It seemed an ominous sign. For several minutes the screen projecting election results went blank.
Shortly after 10 p.m., John Gunyou, Kelliher’s running mate, addressed the crowd. “Margaret had the people-powered campaign,” he said, noting that staff and volunteers had made two million phone calls on the candidate’s behalf, including 100,000 on election day alone. “We need to make sure every vote is counted in Minnesota.”
As Kelliher’s lead continued to erode steadily, she was nowhere to be seen at Jax. By then, media reports showed her clinging to a roughly 6,000 vote lead with a substantial number of precincts not yet reporting. Most ominously for Kelliher: Saint Louis County, which includes Duluth and is a Dayton stronghold, had not yet turned in any results.
Matt Swenson, Kelliher’s communications director, nonetheless continued to sound notes of optimism. He pointed out that Kelliher had scored decisive victories in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Other counties she carried: Carver, Washington, Renville, Olmsted and Blue Earth.
But as midnight approached, the first media reports surfaced of Dayton inching ahead in the contest. The upstairs bar at Jax had run out of Grain Belt and Sam Adams. Weary DFLers started to file out of the building. State Sens. Sandy Pappas and Ellen Anderson were spotted leaving the premises.
A few minutes later, word filtered through the room that the Associated Press had called the race for Dayton. Still there was no sign of Kelliher on the premises.
Shortly after 12:30 a.m., the candidate finally surfaced. She greeted supporters effusively and the crowd roared her name. There was no concession.
“It’s been a long night and it’s going to be a little bit longer night,” Kelliher told the crowd. “So we’re not making any decisions. We have some numbers to come in yet and we’re optimistic.”
Everyone was directed to go home.
But by then it was being reported that Dayton’s lead stood at roughly 4,000 votes with more than 98 percent of precincts reporting. Few who remained in the crowd actually believed Kelliher could still prevail. Given that Dayton was a formidable favorite heading into the primary, it represented a remarkable closing push by Kelliher’s campaign.
“We detected a real groundswell over the last week,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, shortly after Kelliher addressed the crowd. “People who were undecided before were breaking towards Margaret.”
Even so, a loss is still a loss. What’s more, the exceedingly tight campaign could make it difficult for Kelliher’s supporters to reconcile themselves to a Dayton candidacy. But Hornstein insisted that the party will come together to defeat Republican nominee Tom Emmer in November.
“I think the party is extremely unified,” said Hornstein. “We’ve seen so clearly what eight years of extremism has meant to the state.”
Kelliher ultimately conceded late Wednesday morning as this issue of Capitol Report was going to press.