Analysts say Republican nominee never recovered from a dismal July
Tony Sutton doesn’t believe that Tom Emmer could possibly have lost the governor’s race. At a press conference on Wednesday, the state GOP party chair laid out his case for why the vote must have been cooked.
“Something doesn’t smell right when you take control of the state House, you take control of the state Senate, you win the 8th Congressional District, folks, and yet somehow, somehow, we don’t win the governor’s race,” Sutton said. “I don’t know if I’m suggesting fraud or incompetency.”
But only hardcore GOP partisans actually believe that malevolent forces were at work in determining the outcome of the governor’s race. A less conspiratorial and more plausible theory as to why Emmer failed to catch a GOP wave that swept the nation is that he never recovered from a bruising month of July.
That’s when Alliance for a Better Minnesota began airing ads attacking Emmer for a pair of past drunk-driving convictions and a legislative proposal to weaken penalties for DUI convictions. At the time, Emmer had recently emerged from a bitterly fought endorsement battle with state Rep. Marty Seifert, had little cash on hand, and remained largely unknown outside the world of core Republican activists.
“It’s not rocket science,” said a veteran GOP operative who was privy to the campaign’s inner workings but didn’t want to be identified. “They spent more money against Tom Emmer defining him as a monster who drives drunk and has DUIs in his past than they spent in the entire 2006 campaign.”
The veteran GOP strategist says that the campaign seriously weighed running a television ad in which Emmer directly addressed the DUI arrests. But ultimately that strategy was discarded as too risky and expensive. “There was a discussion, should we hit the DUI ad head on?” the strategist recalled. “They decided let’s just stay on jobs, jobs jobs and we’ll survive it.”
Gregg Peppin, a veteran GOP campaign consultant, agrees that the drunk-driving ad was effective, particularly with female suburban voters. Peppin recalls encountering one such wary voter on the day before the election while working at a phone bank in Maple Grove. Once he explained to the woman that the DUI convictions were two decades old, she pledged to vote for Emmer. “How many independents, how many Republicans did we not speak to who had those concerns?” Peppin wonders. That partly explains why Emmer accumulated roughly 72,000 fewer votes in the seven county metro area than Gov. Tim Pawlenty drew four years earlier.
But the summer doldrums for Emmer’s campaign weren’t entirely the result of outside forces. Some wounds were self-inflicted. Emmer’s suggestion that employees who receive tips should be exempted from the minimum wage because many take home six-figure salaries was roundly derided as clueless. His ensuing attempt to deal with the issue through a town hall meeting turned into a complete debacle when a liberal prankster dumped a pile of pennies at the GOP candidate’s feet.
“That was the goal of the town meeting – to kill [the controversy],” said the strategist, of the minimum wage issues. But the gambit backfired. “It made a lot of people who don’t pay attention to politics pay attention to Emmer in a negative way.”
Peppin sees other factors at work in Emmer’s loss as well. In the prior two election cycles, Democrats blamed their defeats on the presence of third-party candidates who drained support primarily from their nominee. But this time around, Independence Party nominee Tom Horner is believed to have pulled more votes from the Republican candidate. In the 3rd Congressional District, for instance, where Horner had his highest level of support, Emmer received 20,000 fewer votes than Pawlenty drew in 2006. By comparison, Dayton accumulated just 9,000 fewer votes than DFL nominee Mike Hatch did four years earlier.
Peppin also argues that rural voters never took to Emmer. “I believe that a rural Republican candidate would have secured a substantial victory,” said Peppin, who backed Seifert in the GOP endorsement contest. “My travels over the years have proved to me time and time again that you need a special kind of candidate to draw those voters.”
In Faribault County, for instance, along the Iowa border, Emmer received support from 48 percent of voters. That seems pretty impressive until you consider that state Reps. Bob Gunther, of Fairmont, and Tony Cornish, of Good Thunder, each garnered support from at least 65 percent of voters.
In northwest Minnesota’s Roseau County, similarly, Emmer ran 18 points behind House candidate Dan Fabian, who ousted incumbent Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls. Peppin acknowledges that there will be some drop-off considering the presence of a strong third-party candidate in the governor’s race and the local familiarity of legislative challengers.
“There’s no question that there will be a difference,” he said. “Should it be 18 points? Probably not.”
In the end, considering how close the race proved to be, there are dozens of different minute considerations that could be offered as explanations for why Emmer fell short. Weather, the competitiveness of congressional races in various parts of the state and Tea Party fervor all undoubtedly could account for swinging 10,000 votes in one direction or another. But ultimately Emmer never recovered from the pounding he took in July.
“They beat him up good,” said the GOP operative. “That’s it. It’s the whole thing. Massive amounts of union money defining him. That’s the whole election.”