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When early state election results appeared on the big screens at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton, even Minnesota DFL party chair Brian Melendez expressed surprise.

GOP in constitutional office races: Close but no cigar

Anderson, Severson fall short; Swanson swamps Barden

When early state election results appeared on the big screens at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton, even Minnesota DFL party chair Brian Melendez expressed surprise.

“Huh? We’re up that much?” Melendez asked to no one in particular.

In fact, even though the polls had closed less than an hour before, the Secretary of State’s election results web site had the DFL candidates for attorney general, the secretary’s office, and state auditor leading by 40 to 50 percentage points – countering what would prove to be a huge night for Republicans nationally and locally.

This prompted a bit of showboating from Melendez. “Of all the non-gubernatorial office seekers for constitutional offices,” Melendez said, referring to the GOP candidate for state auditor, “Pat Anderson was the only one I took seriously.”

Of course, as the night went on, the margins tightened (Anderson herself came within 25,000 votes – 1 percent – of winning), but the latest Republican revolution fell short in the constitutional office races in Minnesota. Attorney General candidate Chris Barden, Secretary of State candidate Dan Severson and Anderson failed to trump DFL incumbents Lori Swanson, Mark Ritchie and Rebecca Otto, respectively.

While it was small solace for Democrats, the Minnesota GOP came up short on the state office undercard on a night when it produced scorched-earth results in the Minnesota Legislature .

What happened?

“I don’t really know,” GOP chair Tony Sutton said hesitantly midway through election night at the GOP party at the Sheraton in Bloomington. “It’s something we’ll have to go back to the war room and look at.”

The obvious short answer would be this: two unknown candidates, poor strategies. AG candidate Chris Barden, for example, opted out of public financing for his candidacy, reportedly thinking that he would need at least $1 million to unseat Lori Swanson, and that he didn’t want his fundraising totals capped by state campaign spending laws. In the end Barden raised only $100,000.

“In terms of principle, I can understand why a candidate would be reluctant to take what I call campaign welfare,” Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said. “But it’s difficult to make up that difference. Overall, it was not the best decision for [Barden] trying to run for statewide office, [having] never been in office before.”

There were grumblings among GOPers all night that it was a botched move. Sutton, for his part, revealed more in what he didn’t say. “I respect the campaigns and the decisions they have to make,” he said. “They have to make their own decisions. I’ll leave it at that.”

Auditor rematch

Back at the Hilton, Melendez, R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman all pointed to the bona fides of the DFL candidates, with Melendez in particular pointing out that all three offices had won recognition under the tenures of Swanson, Ritchie and Otto.

Around the Republican gathering at the Sheraton, most expressed some disappointment over Anderson’s showing, mostly because it was a rematch: Anderson had won the auditor’s office in 2002, but lost in 2006 to Otto in a rash of anti-Bush sentiment at the polls. Many believed going in that Anderson could take her seat back.

Even Rybak praised her campaign. “Pat Anderson ran an extremely strong campaign,” Rybak said Tuesday night. “She had a very clear campaign message – a Tea Party message – and it didn’t work.”

But it came close. Krinkie chalked Anderson’s loss up to getting a late start in the auditor’s race due to her prior flirtation with a gubernatorial bid. “She started out as a candidate in a very crowded governor’s field,” Krinkie said. “Perhaps if she had started in the auditor’s race right away, she would have made it.”

Even the Secretary of State race had a close-but-not-quite ring to it. Mark Ritchie mostly earned plaudits for his role in the Al Franken/Norm Coleman recount. That and his name recognition should have made this re-election a slam dunk, but opponent Dan Severson came within 4 percent of Ritchie’s total.

A dejected Severson took stock of his campaign at the Sheraton, saying he concentrated on one issue: Voter identification for elections. “A [majority] of people want photo ID,” Severson said. “Why would anyone vote against it?”

A Hennepin County voter snafu that caused many Dayton votes to be temporarily double-counted was enough to get Severson to take a swipe at Ritchie one more time.

“You’re seeing issues tonight with the voting process and a secretary of state stepping all over the numbers,” Severson said, adding that he was “skeptical of the numbers” all night. “The bottom-line benefit is that there are smaller groups [out there now] who understand the issue of voter fraud.”

Low-visibility races

So the Republicans came up short in what, to many people, looked like winnable races. Ritchie had become a lightning rod, fairly or not, in the recount. Lori Swanson endured a controversial office revolt in the opening year of her first term. And Anderson had name recognition and a previous stint in the office she sought.

“The fact is, these are low-visibility races,” SoS candidate Severson offered. “People are thinking about the governor’s race.”

Was it a problem with the ticket from the top down, starting with Tom Emmer for governor? “Many more people are paying attention to the governor’s race than these [races],” Krinkie offers. “The thing we don’t know is where [Independence Party gubernatorial candidate] Tom Horner’s votes go for the other constitutional offices.”

“Voters in Minnesota go on a case-by-case basis,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said.

It’s a sentiment that Krinkie echoes. “Here it’s one office at a time, one race at a time, up and down the ballot,” he said. “There was a conservative wave across the country, and it didn’t quite catch on all the way here.”

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