Political analysts weigh assets, liabilities from governor’s first term
In his last public appearance before undergoing a hip procedure that would keep him out of the public eye for several weeks, Gov. Mark Dayton once again found himself dismissing rumors that his health will keep him from campaigning for re-election in 2014.
“Last I read, brain cells are located in the head, not the hip,” the first-term governor told reporters asking about his procedure on Tuesday. “It’s been painful the last four months, but that’s part of life. I’m pretty tough, and hopefully this will correct it. If not, I’ll limp along.”
It’s not the first time the 66-year-old governor, the oldest in state history, has been questioned about his plan to run again for the state’s top office. It’s a favorite line of Republicans, who are hopeful the fairly popular incumbent governor will step aside before Election Day, leaving the race wide open. It would also be the first time Dayton sought re-election to a statewide office — he served one term as a U.S. senator and as state auditor — and others have questioned whether he can handle the rigors of the campaign trail.
But Dayton and his campaign team are adamant about his plans to run for re-election, and with roughly one year to go before Election Day, they’re crafting a campaign message that highlights job creation, higher education funding and lower property taxes during his first term as governor. Likewise, the five Republicans currently seeking the nomination to take Dayton on next fall are combing through his record and preparing their attacks.
Dayton has taken a firm stand on several contentious issues during his tenure in the governor’s office, and political pundits say those issues could play a pivotal role in his chances for re-election. They include tax increases, gay marriage and childcare unionization. And almost all observers seem to agree: Republicans’ best shot at winning the governorship next fall is to make Dayton’s record the focus on the campaign.
“He has been a full-throated liberal on some issues,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “The challenger has to make Dayton the issue. That’s something [2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee] Tom Emmer could not do because of his self-inflicted wounds. This time Dayton’s got a record to defend.”
The main attack from Republicans will likely focus on the more than $2 billion in tax increases the governor signed into law this spring. Republicans are sure to cast Dayton as a tax-and-spend Democrat who hit middle class Minnesotans with a slew of tax hikes, while Dayton and his DFL allies will focus on the spending side, highlighting the fact that new revenue meant they could make much-needed investments in all-day kindergarten programs, classrooms and property tax relief. But most political observers agree: It’s hard to make a message about spending stick with voters.
“People don’t notice new spending,” Fritz Knaak, an attorney and former Republican lawmaker, said. “We did not need to raise taxes $2 billion to have new spending, so I think he’ll answer for that.”
It doesn’t help that Dayton appears to be backing away from three business-to-business tax increases passed last session, observers say, and the push from business groups to repeal the taxes next session has already made headlines.
Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says the property tax decreases that most Minnesotans will see as a result of the DFL budget could counteract that negative attention, but he warns that Dayton’s tax hikes upset a powerful part of the electorate.
“The biggest negative on the tax increases is the people who got hit are the people with money,” Moe said. “And they are going to put it into the campaign against him.”
Dayton had better hope the Minnesota Vikings improve their performance on the field this season. “If it looks like we are supporting a team that is 1-15, people are going to wonder,” Knaak said. “It sounds silly, but it’s true.”
Dayton himself has joked about the team’s poor performance in the midst of an onslaught of already bad news when it comes to the $975 million private-public project. The governor and the team have been going back-and-forth about finances since Zygi and Mark Wilf, the team’s owners, were found liable in August for defrauding former business partners in New Jersey. Dayton ordered a review of the Wilfs’ finances, and it wasn’t long before the governor and team owners started trading barbs over the cost of personal seat licenses in the new facility. But in the end, most political watchers think the bad headlines will taper off and Dayton will see little negative impact in his campaign.
“The Vikings stadium is somewhat controversial, but on the other hand he looked like an executive in the process. He stated it was his goal to get it done, and he rolled up his sleeves and got it done,” said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College. “In the end it’s a net positive for him.”
Child care unionization
Political observers say Dayton put a potentially crippling target on his back when he led the push to unionize childcare providers in the state. Dayton was the one who got the ball rolling on the issue back in November 2011, when he issued an executive order calling for a union election for state-subsidized child care providers. A Ramsey County district judge blocked that order in April 2012, so the newly DFL-controlled Legislature passed a law last spring allowing the vote to take place. Republicans tried to block the votes on the House and Senate floor, resulting in nearly 30 hours of debate on the proposal.
Two lawsuits were filed by opponents of the law, but U.S. District Judge Michael Davis tossed out both cases in July. Later, however, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals placed an injunction on the unionization election until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar case in Illinois. From a re-election standpoint, Schier said Dayton likely alienated independent-minded swing voters in the suburbs over the issue.
“This is a big issue for people who are not necessarily partisans,” Schier said. “People who are economically stretched and living in the suburbs could hurt from this. You can expect Republicans to use that against him, framing the issue as a payoff to union bosses at the expense of common people.”
Two years ago, Democrats warned Republicans that putting a gay marriage ban on the ballot would cost them their control over the Minnesota House and Senate. Just this spring, Republicans offered a similar warning to Democrats, noting that while voters rejected the ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, they weren’t necessarily ready for full legalization. Democrats went ahead anyway this year, with Dayton pushing early and hard to legalize gay marriage. Knaak thinks that will cost Dayton key support from seniors and socially conservative Democrats in the Iron Range who helped him win in 2010. “He has a lot of supporters in outstate Minnesota and seniors who won’t be happy with him about [gay marriage],” he said. “That was not playing to his strengths there.”
But Knaak is in the minority: Most Capitol observers expect gay marriage to be a non-issue by the time the election rolls around. “Gay marriage, the polling on that has moved so fast, I think it’s almost going to be a non-issue by the time we get to the next election, and my guess is Dayton isn’t going to run around taking credit for that,” said Wy Spano, a former Democratic lobbyist who now teaches at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.
What’s more, the 2012 election showed observers that liberals in Minnesota can organize a powerful grass-roots force if they feel threatened. Liberals defeated not only the marriage amendment last fall, but a ballot initiative to require a photo I.D. to vote, which initially polled with roughly 80 percent support. “The intensity when it was going on was pretty amazing,” Spano added. “Time will tell if the DFL can draw those voters to the polls again next year.”
Health care reform
Like the Vikings stadium, political observers think the rollout of the Affordable Care Act will only hurt Democrats and state candidates like Dayton next fall if it continues to run into problems. For the most part, the state insurance exchange, MNsure, has ironed out its early issues, but the federal health care exchange continues to be plagued with problems. If they persist, Democratic incumbents around the country should be wary, said Steven Smith, a native Minnesotan political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“If there ends up being major delays in MNsure working properly, then that’s going to hurt the governor,” Smith said. “The vast majority of Minnesotans aren’t affected by this. The governor hurts more by the headlines than by the actual problems with MNsure.”
For his part, Dayton has defended Minnesota’s health insurance exchange. But in the event the federal health care rollout is deemed to be a failure, Dayton said Minnesota voters will likely factor that into their decision-making next fall. “That’s one factor they will take into consideration,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Economic and political climate
The economy and the national political climate will be out of the hands of both gubernatorial candidates next fall, but observers say both of those factors are trending in a direction that will be beneficial to Dayton.
“Right now, thanks to the Republicans’ fumbling in Washington, the generic congressional vote is heavily favoring Democratic incumbents,” said Smith. “The budget picture is improving, the economy is improving, and the fact that the state can pay back money to school districts also looks good for Dayton.”
“Elections are determined by more than just issues, so you have to kind of step back and say, what do we think it’s going to be like in eight or 10 months from now?” Moe added. “If the current trend line on the economy continues, and Minnesota is doing better than the national average, you’d have to say that’s going to be a plus for incumbents.”