Matt Entenza doesn’t have many friends in the DFL.
The outcry from party officials, lawmakers and activists has been deafening since the former House minority leader’s Tuesday announcement that he will challenge incumbent State Auditor Rebecca Otto in an August primary election.
The way DFL observers describe it, Entenza’s decision to challenge an endorsed incumbent isn’t as much an issue as the manner in which he did it. He filed for office with minutes to spare on the last day of candidate registration, surprising the party — though it had been rumored for months that Entenza was eyeing the spot.
“The way he went about this clearly was a little bit more devious in my opinion, and I think it will come back to haunt him,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “This is something altogether different, and I think this will be the final nail in the coffin for Matt Entenza’s political career.”
Entenza immediately opened fire on Otto for votes she took a decade ago when she served in the state House. Party observers say the move coincides with a pattern of opportunism that has left Entenza a frequently maligned figure in the DFL. To most, it looks like he’s teeing up a bid for the governor’s office in 2018.
“If Matt Entenza told me it was a beautiful day outside, I’d immediately buy an umbrella,” said former DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina, who served in the House for more than 25 years.
But Entenza isn’t completely without support — he received the warm backing of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison on Wednesday — and he disputes the doomsday rhetoric about his political future that’s been floating around since Tuesday.
“Every time we go through a primary, people say things like that,” Entenza said. “And as soon as the voters vote, then immediately everyone comes back together, so that’s the way it happens every time. It’s the same rhetoric every time.”
Attorney general candidate in 2006
Entenza’s low standing among DFL insiders stems in part from his 2006 bid to succeed Mike Hatch as the state attorney general.
Entenza dropped out of that race in mid-July 2006 after he admitted to commissioning opposition research against Hatch, a fellow DFLer who was running for governor. The Chicago firm Gragert Research did the digging.
“Fighting for important issues is one thing. Fighting in politics is quite another,” Entenza said at a press conference announcing his exit from the race, Minnesota Public Radio reported at the time. “While I’m confident that I could win the race for attorney general, obviously in this environment, staying in the race could hurt the Democratic Party and the progressive issues I care about so deeply.”
Entenza said in an interview on Thursday that the controversy has been put to bed. “That issue never came up in 2010 and hasn’t come up now,” Entenza said, speaking of his gubernatorial bid that year. “I don’t think there’s any issues there.”
“My past with him is the past, and he’s clearly had his problems with others, so let’s just leave it at that,” Hatch said in a Thursday interview. “He’s just had problems.”
In 2006, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board fined Entenza $28,000 for accepting contributions that were above state limits during his bid for attorney general.
Between 2004 and 2006, Entenza and his then-wife Lois Quam, who was an executive at a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, gave nearly $425,000 to the DFL State Central Committee and the DFL House caucus. Those donations came when Entenza was minority leader.
Rukavina ran against Entenza for minority leader and lost. “A lot of the people who voted for him, of course, were the ones that got a bunch of money from him when they were running for the House of Representatives,” Rukavina said.
House minority leader is the highest office Entenza has attained despite campaigns for attorney general, governor and now auditor. He and Quam have since divorced.
“Usually at the end of the race, he’s withdrawing with a cloud or is having a remarkably poor performance,” Hatch said. “Having said that, he is clearly spending millions of dollars to get into office.”
Groundswell of support for Otto
Otto said she’s been stunned by the reaction since Entenza’s entry to the race. Twitter has lit up with support for Otto, and both the state DFL Party and Gov. Mark Dayton rushed out statements backing her this week.
“I felt the love,” Otto said with a laugh during a Thursday interview, calling the backing from her colleagues “a huge outpouring of support.”
If granted another term, Otto said she wants to continue working on making government more efficient and would also like to look into major weather events that cause significant expense and disruption to local governments, to name a few future projects.
She criticized Entenza for promoting a more policy-focused role for the auditor. Entenza has said he would, among other things, scrutinize school finances in the context of the achievement gap and examine “corporate giveaways” by local governments. He also cited an interest in Minnesota’s pension systems.
“I think the focus has strictly been on making sure the books balance, and it doesn’t do us any good to have balanced books when it turns out that our communities and our pensioners are in big trouble,” Entenza said. He added that he believes Minnesotans want a more active auditor.
Entenza has also said he would stand with state constitutional officers on another issue: mining. Though he said he is focused on other priorities, Entenza said he stands with Dayton when it comes to nonferrous mining.
In October 2013, Otto cast the lone “no” vote on the state’s Executive Council when it took up exploratory nonferrous mining leases in Northern Minnesota. She has repeatedly said she is neither for nor against mining, insisting instead that “I’m pro-taxpayer.”
Still, Dayton reiterated to reporters on Wednesday that he would be backing Otto.
“I’m going to stick with my promise,” Dayton said. “We disagree on some particular issues and that’s clear from the votes on the Executive Council, but overall I think she’s been a good state auditor and I think she deserves re-election.”
Otto and others also criticized Entenza for using the auditor campaign to prepare for a 2018 gubernatorial run. “He’s trying to use this as a stepping stone for something else down the road,” claimed party chair Martin.
Entenza wouldn’t say whether he was planning to run for governor in 2018, when Dayton has said he’ll be done.
“I’m running for auditor. I think we should be focused on that race,” he said. “I don’t know why the incumbent seems to be so worried about what I might do in other elections. I’m interested in this election here.”
Self-funding prospect unclear
It’s unclear whether Entenza will tap his wealth in the primary election. In his 2010 bid for governor, Entenza pumped more than $5 million of his own money into the race, but ended up in third place in the primary election. So far, Entenza has only said he’ll work to raise money from donors this time.
But he said he’s still working out what he’ll need to spend on the contest, which he noted isn’t as financially demanding as a U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race.
“I don’t have a budget yet,” Entenza said. “I intend to aggressively fundraise, but I don’t have a budget yet, so that’s the best answer I can give you on that.”
Entenza dismissed a question about whether his divorce from Quam will affect his ability to back his own campaign with personal funds. “I don’t think that has anything to do with anything,” he said. Lois Quam did not respond to a request for comment.
Focusing on pension issues could sway baby boomers into his corner, Entenza said. He also said he’ll make a priority of outreach to Minnesota’s growing immigrant communities, which would be a repeat of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Entenza said he commissioned a poll before entering the race, and its results encouraged him to run. He declined to offer details about the polling, but said more public data would be available once campaign finance reports are released.
“I believe that people want a more active auditor, but I also did a poll, and I won’t go into details about it, but those results made me very confident in stepping into this race,” Entenza said. “This is not something that I just did on a whim.”
A DFL activist who asked to remain unnamed said Otto has been doing a good job of reaching out to elected officials and party leaders to earn their support, and that Entenza’s abrupt entrance into the race should bolster her fundraising efforts.
Otto immediately noted that she doesn’t have the kind of financial resources that are likely at Entenza’s command. But Martin said Otto would be able to count on her fellow Democrats.
“We’re going to put the full weight of the party behind making sure that Rebecca Otto is elected,” he said. “It’s more a thorn in her side more than anything.”
The activist also noted that in mid-term primaries, low turnout means that a significant chunk of voters will likely be the motivated convention delegates that chose to endorse her last weekend. Other primary voters — though perhaps one level of enthusiasm removed from convention delegates — are still quite informed, the activist added.
One other advantage for Otto, in that source’s eyes: “You can never underestimate the dislike amongst DFLers for Matt Entenza.”