Veteran DFL campaign strategist Jeff Blodgett, who was recently named executive director of the independent expenditure group WIN Minnesota, has got his work cut out for him in 2012.
WIN Minnesota was the DFL fundraising powerhouse that played a key role in helping elect Gov. Mark Dayton last year by funneling millions of dollars into negative ads against GOP nominee Tom Emmer. Next year, the entire Legislature is up for re-election as Democrats try to win back House and Senate majorities even as they navigate the contours of newly drawn districts. On top of that, Republicans have successfully placed an amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot, and have a few more queued up to pass next session, and the fight against those measures is bound to consume a lot of time and money.
But Blodgett has proven his campaign bona fides. He cut his teeth running Paul Wellstone’s upstart 1990 U.S. Senate campaign and helped found Wellstone Action — a training ground for up-and-coming liberal candidates and activists — after the senator’s death. He spent eight years as the nonprofit group’s executive director. More recently he was the Minnesota state director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he took a leave of absence from his position as executive director of Wellstone Action to work with Dayton’s transition team.
When former WIN Minnesota head Ken Martin was elected chairman of the DFL Party, Blodgett jumped on board to lead the political fund that boasts deep-pocketed, prominent donors like Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger and publishing mogul Vance Opperman. On Thursday Capitol Report talked with Blodgett about his new job, the fundraising challenges ahead and the lay of the political land in 2012.
Capitol Report: How are you liking the new role?
Jeff Blodgett: I like it a lot because it’s a very focused effort around fixing the state and changing the leadership at the Legislature, and I’m not managing as many people as I was before and I actually like that. I like the focus of it; l like the size of the operation; it just sort of fits where I am at in my life.
CR: In 2010 WIN Minnesota focused on electing Gov. Mark Dayton. Looking at 2012, what is going to be the group’s main focus?
Blodgett: We are putting together a similar effort to what we did in 2010, with a focus on again fixing our state for the long term, building Minnesota back into a state that works again and is progressing. And so our focus will be on the legislative leadership that over the last eight months have failed our state miserably. They really displayed no interest in fixing things, and we really don’t think they did their job, so we are interested in replacing them with people who are interested in fixing the state and moving it in a direction that we think is the right way to go in Minnesota. It’s about achieving new majorities.
CR: What went wrong in 2010 to make DFLers lose wide majorities in both chambers?
Blodgett: I don’t think there was one factor; many of the races were very close. There were certainly some turnout issues on our side that affected the result given how close some of the races were. There was a lot of special interest money that went into legislative races that wasn’t really countered in any way, and there was a ton of attention on the governor’s race and winning back the governor’s seat after 20 years, and some of the attention was taken off the legislative races. The biggest factor was definitely a turnout drop-off from 2008. There were just a lot of people that didn’t come back and vote in 2010.
CR: What will you do differently?
Blodgett: We don’t coordinate and aren’t really connected with the DFL and their candidates directly. From my perception, we are very interested in a really smart and strategic way in making the case and having the conversation with voters about the kinds of legislators they want to see in St. Paul, and really making the case that the folks who are there now and in charge did not do their job and are not really interested in fixing the state and have their own agenda that they are pushing. We will make that broad case to voters and in specific areas as well when we figure out where we are going to be. We will be doing that independent of the actual candidates’ campaigns and the party.
CR: The group has worked closely in the past with the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and the 2010 Fund, with WIN Minnesota doing the bulk of the fundraising, while the Alliance spent the money on ad campaigns. Will that role change at all in 2012?
Blodgett: WIN Minnesota works in close partnership with the Alliance for a Better Minnesota as well as a lot of other smaller groups and organizations, and we are going to be taking that same arrangement into the 2012 cycle.
CR: Certainly constitutional amendments will be a part of the fundraising puzzle. Republicans have already successfully passed a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, and others seem to be lined up to pass next session. Does that complicate things for you?
Blodgett: I don’t think amendments will complicate things. The marriage ban has a tremendous base of people already active and working to defeat that amendment. It certainly has a lot of people willing to give money small and large and I think they will — independent of everything else going on — be well funded, and I don’t see it to be competitive at all. I also think the amendments may spark interest in the elections in some folks who wouldn’t normally be that interested. The work to defeat the amendments, in some ways, could be very helpful in driving turnout on our side.
CR: Will you be putting any money or resources into helping defeat any of these ballot initiatives?
Blodgett: The primary focus is on the Legislature, winning back the House and Senate. We will be also doing what we can to help the ballot initiatives, whether that’s fundraising or providing other kinds of support in helping them with their coalition and their organizational resources. We haven’t totally figured that out yet. The ballot initiatives are also something of great interest to those in WIN Minnesota, but a lot of us believe that unless we win back the Legislature, we will be fighting these ballot initiatives for years to come.
CR: Will you be advertising on television or in other media heavily, as you have in the past?
Blodgett: I think that legislative races and the statewide races are very different and require different strategies and tactics, and we haven’t totally figured that out. The bottom line is that we intend to engage with voters across the state and particularly in important [swing] areas about the performance of the current majorities and their failure to do their job. We will do that through a variety of mediums. It’s not really clear if that will be through television or other ways, but we will be having that conversation.
CR: What about fundraising? Are you going to employ a new strategy?
Blodgett: We will be gathering together again the large collection of individuals and organizations that in 2010 really cared about putting in place a governor who cared about the direction of the state. It’s the same group of people and organizations that will care about who’s in charge of the Legislature. We anticipate coming back to the same folks and getting support and maybe some new individuals. I don’t anticipate a lot of differences in how we raise the resources.
CR: Will you be focusing on any legislative races more than others?
Blodgett: The lines aren’t drawn and the candidates haven’t been chosen, so a lot of those decisions just haven’t been made yet. We will talk generally about those who are in charge of the Legislature now and how they failed to do their job, and we could look at individuals and particular decisions they’ve made. It will very [likely] be a combination.