In 2008 Minnesota seemed like the center of the political universe. Barack Obama claimed victory in the Democratic presidential primary battle at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Three months later Republicans officially nominated John McCain as their presidential candidate from the same stage. Then there was the interminable U.S. Senate contest that kept the eyes of political observers nationwide focused on Minnesota.
By comparison 2010 was a rather sleepy affair. The most anticipated congressional contest, featuring flamboyant Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, turned out to be a cakewalk for the incumbent. The governor’s race included so many dull, repetitive debates that the candidates could have recited each other’s canned responses by the end.
But that’s not to say 2010 didn’t feature some important and improbable political moments. Here’s a rundown of the year’s top 10 political stories:
1) Republicans take control of the Legislature: Throughout the campaign season, Republican leaders boasted about the top-flight challengers they’d recruited for Senate races across the state. But most political observers took their claims about taking over the senior chamber as hyperbole. The reality that Republicans had indeed won the Senate for the first time in the modern, partisan era of Minnesota legislative contests set in when it became clear that five-term Sen. Don Betzold was going down to defeat. Even then, some DFLers on election night refused to believe that they’d lost control of the Senate. Presumably they got the message when they started moving their belongings out of the Capitol and across the street to the more austere confines of the State Office Building.
2) Dayton spurns DFL endorsement, wins governor’s contest: Remember when French-Canadian ingénue Celine Dion won the Eurovision song contest? Let’s hope not. But that’s how long it’s been since a Democrat held the state’s top office. Whatever the reason for Dayton’s narrow victory – his tax-the-rich mantra, the ineptitude of his opponent’s campaign, the public’s disgust with the status quo – he managed to break a remarkable streak of DFL futility. The spoils of this victory: the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit and the chance to go mano a mano with those new Republican legislative majorities.
3) Chip Cravaack knocks off Jim Oberstar: Chip who? Count us among the media bloviators who openly scoffed when Cravaack’s campaign released an internal poll one month before Election Day purportedly showing him in a dead heat with the 18-term incumbent and influential transportation chair. But then a stench of desperation started to waft from the Oberstar camp. All of a sudden there was a glut of press releases and public appearances from the previously moribund campaign. Then there was Oberstar’s notoriously prickly debate performance during which he derided the audience as members of the “flat-earth society.”
4) T-Paw preps for presidential bid: When it became clear that the governor’s race was headed towards a statewide manual recount, Gov. Tim Pawlenty assured voters that he would be willing to stick around the Capitol should the election battle drag into 2011 – which showed some chutzpah, considering that he’d spent the previous 18 months in office criss-crossing the nation in preparation for a 2012 presidential bid. In the eyes of most political pundits, Pawlenty has made all the right moves to position himself as a contender. But early polls consistently show him garnering about as much momentum as the 2000 Robert C. “Bob” Smith campaign. (Yes, the former New Hampshire congressman did seek the GOP nomination that year.)
5) General Assistance Medical Care debate: During the 2010 session, Pawlenty initially refused to consider a partial revival of the indigent care program that he’d eliminated. But when it became clear that regional hospitals were going to get the shaft financially, it was a contingent of House Republicans who pushed for a brokered deal. Ultimately Republican Rep. Matt Dean and DFL Rep. Erin Murphy negotiated a pact to salvage the program. While the deal has proven inadequate in many respects, the legislative dynamics at play likely previewed the 2011 session. Republicans have uniformly vowed to eliminate the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit without raising taxes, but that solidarity may crack when the reality of budget cuts begins to imperil legislators politically in their home districts.
6) The $6.2 billion deficit: Gov.-elect Dayton and the Republican-led Legislature won’t officially begin grappling with the state’s historic budget deficit until next year. But the state’s systemic revenue shortfalls dominated the campaign season. Dayton’s prescription: Tax the rich. The GOP’s remedy: Cut spending. These seemingly irreconcilable stances will set the narrative for the looming legislative session.
7) Michele Bachmann raises more money than any Congressional candidate in the country: The Sixth Congressional District incumbent certainly knows how to prime the GOP money pump with alarmist hyperbole. Take this October 29 solicitation to supporters: “We have got to fight back against Bill Clinton,” it read. “He has launched an all-out assault on Tea Party candidates across the country, including me!” The end result of Bachmann’s incessant money hunt: an astonishing $13.2 million raised during the 2010 election cycle. To put that figure in perspective, it’s more than Minnesota’s seven other U.S. House incumbents combined. She ended the campaign season with $2 million still in the bank. Perhaps the start of a war chest to take on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2012?
8) Recount redux – or not: Here we go again. That was the weary mantra from the Capitol press corps as the governor’s race proceeded to a statewide manual recount. Inevitable comparisons to the tortuous 2008 Senate contest that dragged on for eight months after Election Day surfaced frequently. But from the outset, despite the bluster of GOP chair Tony Sutton, there was little doubt that Dayton would ultimately prevail in the governor’s race. His nearly 9,000-vote lead far surpassed any margin ever previously eclipsed through a recount. In the end, Emmer conceded shortly before the state canvassing board was to make the recount totals official. So the vote tally from Election Day was the one ultimately certified – as if the recount had never actually happened.
9) Hackbarth’s police blues: Rep. Tom Hackbarth’s run-in with St. Paul cops in the parking lot of a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul was undoubtedly the most bizarre political story of the year. Police were summoned after the Republican legislator was spotted with a gun outside the Highland Park clinic. Hackbarth informed the cops that he was “jealous” about his “girlfriend” as an explanation for his presence in the area. But he couldn’t provide any contact information for the woman in question. Concerned about “stalking-like behavior,” the cops confiscated his .38 caliber revolver. Ultimately the eight-term Cedar legislator wasn’t charged with any crime and his legally licensed gun was returned. Seemingly the only permanent fallout: Hackbarth resigned as incoming chair of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
10) Metrodome collapses: You don’t have to be Jesse Ventura to start dreaming up wild conspiracy theories about the dramatic deflation of the Dome just weeks before the start of the 2011 legislative session. With the Minnesota Vikings poised to unleash an intense lobbying campaign for a new stadium, nothing could better encapsulate the shortcomings of the existing facility than images of a deflated fiberglass fabric roof. We only wish we’d been there earlier this week when engineers decided to relieve the weight of more fresh snow by blowing another hole in the roof with a shotgun – which, we have to believe, is not a stadium maintenance tool of choice.