With state aid at stake, some traditional GOP strongholds are keeping their distance in this year’s governor’s race
In the final weeks before the general election, Minnesota gubernatorial candidates will be putting thousands of miles on their campaign vehicles. In particular, the candidates have larded their schedules with events in greater Minnesota. GOP nominee Tom Emmer campaigned throughout southern Minnesota last week, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner visited cities like Willmar, Red Wing and Rochester, and DFL candidate Mark Dayton, whose campaign has planned a rally on a dairy farm, has been traveling to western Minnesota cities like Montevideo.
But while Republicans generally depend on getting more votes in rural communities, both polls and observers say that GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer’s campaign doesn’t seem to be gaining traction in greater Minnesota. Recent surveys show Emmer trailing DFL candidate Mark Dayton in all outstate regions, despite the past triumphs of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other Republicans in those areas.
A late September poll from the Star Tribune found Emmer and Dayton running neck-and-neck in outstate Minnesota with 35 percent apiece, but a mid October KSTP/SurveyUSA poll put Dayton ahead in all regions. According to the poll, Dayton is leading Emmer by 9 percent in southern Minnesota, by 5 percent in the western part of the state, and by 15 percent northeastern Minnesota. A similar poll in the 1st Congressional District showed Dayton beating Emmer 43-35. Horner is polling at about 13 percent outstate.
The numbers should be a red flag for Emmer’s campaign. Pawlenty, former Sen. Norm Coleman and George W. Bush all trumped their Democratic challengers in the southern part of the state, and the same group – including John McCain – won elections in western Minnesota by at least 5 percentage points. Most polls have shown Emmer and Dayton running even in the Twin Cities area, meaning greater Minnesota votes will likely tip the scale on election night.
Dayton’s strength in rural and outstate areas could stem partly from his name recognition as a former U.S. senator and heir to the Dayton department store legacy. He has proven popular with senior citizens, many of whom live in outstate Minnesota, and he is the only candidate in the governor’s race with a running mate – Duluth state Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon – from outside the metro area.
Dayton has also promised to preserve state funding for cities via local government aid (LGA). Emmer, by contrast, has put a very large target on its back: His budget plan would cut LGA by $681 million. LGA has been chipped away by the governor and the Legislature since 2003 during tight economic times. City officials argue that the cuts – coupled with Pawlenty’s holding the line on taxes at the state level – have put city leaders in a tough spot.
In a letter to the Star Tribune, Hibbing mayor and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president Rick Wolff wrote that LGA has been reduced by more than $1 billion over the last eight years, producing property tax hikes of 68 percent statewide and finally forcing cities to lay off police and firefighters and to close public libraries and recreation centers in the wake of the monster recession of the past two years.
“Try as Emmer and I might, there’s no wishing away the consequences of LGA cuts. Yet while I realize the state’s potential to revive its commitment to property tax payers, Emmer sees an opportunity to pull the plug,” he wrote.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities represents more than 70 municipalities across Minnesota and doesn’t endorse in political contests, as many of the group’s members are mayors or city officials anointed in nonpartisan elections. But this year more than in past elections, says executive director Tim Flaherty, city officials are speaking out against Emmer and throwing their hat in the ring for Dayton.
“I don’t think many of the mayors in greater Minnesota are supporting Rep. Emmer,” he said.
Some local officials have joined a new group called Community Leaders for Dayton, which was launched by former League of Minnesota Cities president and DFL St. Paul City Council member Bob Long. The group started a few weeks ago and has more than 50 members across the state, Long said, including mayors from Royalton, Willmar and New London. “They have agreed to step out of their usual role and put their name on paper for Dayton,” he said. “Emmer is not going to attempt any kind of state and local partnership, and he seems fairly hell-bent on wiping out LGA.”
Horner also says he supports local government aid, but has suggested that he wants to change the formula that determines how much aid each city receives. While Horner’s poll numbers aren’t high outstate, he has been campaigning hard in greater Minnesota since early on in his campaign, hitting strong IP areas like south-central Minnesota. His support in greater Minnesota may be bolstered by a spate of greater Minnesota newspaper endorsements that materialized in the past week, including nods from the Duluth News Tribune, the Bemidji Pioneer, Fargo Forum and the West Central Tribune.
Mark Voxland, a longtime Republican mayor of Moorhead, said he cannot support Emmer’s candidacy this year. He is trying to decide between Dayton and Horner. “I don’t think [Emmer] understands rural Minnesota cities,” Voxland said. “I’m sensing quite a bit of dissatisfaction with Emmer. He is drifting so far away from what the needs are in greater Minnesota. It’s hard to say, ‘Gee, I want to support him so we can be gutted.'”
“Lifeblood of the state”
Emmer campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl says poll numbers could reflect early attacks by third-party groups like Alliance for a Better Minnesota. The group has spent millions on ads against Emmer, including a particularly damaging television spot featuring a mother who lost her son to a drunk driver criticizing Emmer’s past DUI record. GOP insiders have said the ad hit home for a lot of voters, especially women.
“There were millions upon millions of dollars spent early in this campaign trying to define Tom Emmer,” Kuhl said. “But I think that folks have gotten to know Tom Emmer and they understand his message that the government needs to live within its means.”
Kuhl acknowledges the importance of a strong showing in greater Minnesota, calling it the “lifeblood” of the state and pointing out the campaign has scheduled events and rallies in as many rural cities as possible.
While campaigning in his district, state Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said residents have been receptive to Emmer’s message about creating jobs and cutting back on excessive government spending. Despite what the polls say, Nornes told Capitol Report Emmer is “running strong up here.”
Kay Wolsborn, a political Science professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University near St. Cloud, said Emmer was slow to bring a full budget to the table, and hasn’t been clear on exactly what he is going to do to redesign government. “Outstaters like that idea that someone is being upfront with them, and I don’t think that Emmer has completely made his case yet.” Dayton and Horner have, she said.
But Wolsborn says there is time for Emmer to woo rural voters before Election Day. “Republicans have the edge on get out the vote efforts, so to the extent he can get his base working on that message, than I think Emmer will do better than he is polling.”