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Lessons learned: 4 takeaways from the election

GOP campaign consultant Gregg Peppin said Republicans’ only hope to push back against the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota would be the formation of a single political group that unites the disparate business and social-interest conservatives. (File photo)

GOP campaign consultant Gregg Peppin said Republicans’ only hope to push back against the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota would be the formation of a single political group that unites the disparate business and social-interest conservatives. (File photo)

Brian Rice probably had more important things to do with his time. Among other tasks, Rice, an attorney, needed to prepare for an upcoming court date. But he couldn’t help himself.

On the Thursday after Election Day, the DFL consultant and poll data junkie combed through the numbers, using fresh and historical statistics to shed light on the DFL’s victories in a pair of statewide races on the same night it lost at least 11 state House seats. By midmorning, Rice had spotted the crucial figure.

Compared with the previous midterm election in 2010, rural voter turnout declined precipitously this year, and most of those missing voters must typically lean Democratic. Rice’s research might go some distance toward spelling out the “how” and the “where” of this year’s election; the “why” will likely be subject to some discussion on both sides of the political field.

Rice is one of many Minnesota politicos looking for meaningful patterns in the still-settling dust from Tuesday’s contests. Capitol Report spoke to a number of informed and opinionated partisans to round up the first draft of received wisdom from the election which returned DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken to Washington, D.C., and Gov. Mark Dayton to the governor’s office, while likely setting the stage for at least two years of House leadership for Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, after just two terms in office.

Indeed, some sources volunteered their most blunt political analysis without attribution, given the sensitive timing: Outgoing House Speaker Paul Thissen was re-elected as leader of the House Democratic caucus on Thursday night, while Daudt’s ascendancy was expected though not confirmed as this issue of Capitol Report went to press.

Though the lasting narrative of the 2014 campaigns is still taking shape, most experts agree on at least four lessons learned from the election.

Lesson 1: Candidates matter …

Minnesota’s two most prominent elections found the state out of step with the rest of the nation, where a “red tide” delivered crushing blows to the Democratic Party. Analysts from both parties said the state’s outlier result owes largely, if not entirely, to well-run campaigns at the top of the DFL ticket. Franken and Dayton avoided any major missteps in their candidate debates and public appearances, and spent the bulk of their own campaign resources on positive messaging about their first-term performances.

“Franken had very good commercials, and he had very good positioning and policies over the last six years,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a political advocacy group that backs fiscal conservative candidates.

Republican activist Jeff Kolb said Republicans should also accept some blame for their own choices. Franken’s race was always going to be difficult, Kolb observed, unless either GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline or Erik Paulsen — both easily re-elected on Tuesday — had decided to join that field, where their fundraising prowess and name recognition might have narrowed the gap. But Kolb said Jeff Johnson’s gubernatorial campaign had erred in trying to demonize Dayton, among the most well-liked politicians in the state, rather than attacking his record in office.

“The problem is, Dayton is personally popular — but his policies are not popular,” Kolb said. “They never went after Dayton’s policies. They went after him as a person.”

On the legislative side of the ledger, a number of observers complimented a deep and competent field of Republican candidates. According to one Republican, this vein of talent was the product of recruitment efforts spearheaded by Daudt and GOP Reps. Sarah Anderson (Plymouth) and Denny McNamara (Hastings) over the course of 2013.

Weaver cited hotel owner and nonprofit leader Dave Baker and longtime schoolteacher Peggy Bennett — victors over DFL Reps. Mary Sawatzky (Wilmar) and Shannon Savick (Wells), respectively — as “terrific” choices.

“Republicans had very strong candidates,” Weaver said. “They had a better crop than they did two years ago, and that clearly helped.”

Lesson 2: … but so does the big name not on the ballot.

President Barack Obama wasn’t running for anything this year, and many of his fellow Democrats seemed to be running away from the unpopular second-term leader. Attempts to use Obama as an anchor to sink Franken ultimately failed, likely because the candidate and political allies had enough money to respond with their own messaging.

But Rice said the president’s presence was clearly felt further down the ballot, where legislative elections followed a historical pattern that he can trace back at least six decades. In 14 out of the last 16 midterm elections, the party with control of the White House has lost seats in the Minnesota House, according to a memo Rice drafted on Thursday. By comparison, this year’s 11-seat swing for the Republicans was smaller than the 25 seats the GOP won in 2010, or the 19 seats the DFL gained in 2006.

This year, the “six-year itch” played out mostly in rural areas which, unlike most suburban toss-ups, backed Mitt Romney for president two years ago.

Lesson 3: The talk about “Greater Minnesota” wasn’t just lip service.

Both candidates for governor and the leadership of the competing House caucuses devoted much of the campaign outlining their platforms for outstate Minnesota. Democrats positioned themselves as champions of equal education funding and property tax benefits for farmers, while Republicans slammed the DFL as a “metro-centric” majority.

The anti-White House phenomenon Rice documented was the result of a severe drop in turnout: While metro-area votes tapered-off by about 3 percent from 2010, rural turnout dropped 10 percent, a “pretty amazing” figure, which Rice attributed to a general feeling of unease.

“There’s sort of a disquietude throughout rural America about which way the country’s going,” he said.

Others said the flipped seats could be traced back directly to DFL support of same-sex marriage. Of the 10 outstate seats the Democrats lost, eight of those legislators voted to legalize gay marriage in 2013. Sawatzky and Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, the only two House Democrats who voted against that bill, both notched more than 49 percent of the vote in tight losses. Comparatively, multiple-term Reps. John Ward (Baxter) and Tim Faust (Hinckley) voted green on same-sex marriage, and lost their elections by about 7 percent, and three-term DFL Rep. Andrew Falk (Murdock) fell by nearly 11 percent.

Iron Range blogger and DFL activist Aaron Brown said those losses could be the result of voter’s discomfort with the rapid rate of legislating under the DFL majority, as the party enacted the marriage legislation and MNsure, the state-run health insurance exchange, in quick succession.

“Some of these people might feel good about the economy, and maybe they like Dayton,” he said. “But they wanted some kind of balance to slow down the pace of change.”

Gregg Peppin, a consultant for Johnson’s campaign and several House candidates, said Republican contenders were not running on an anti-gay marriage platform, but nonetheless heard about the issue from voters.

“I heard multiple reports from at least three candidates in rural Minnesota that voters were bringing it up,” Peppin said. “One of them told me it came up at least a dozen times a day. That was sort of shocking to me.”

One Democrat said some blame for the lack of DFL turnout should be aimed at the Dayton campaign, saying the incumbent spent too much of his time ginning up turnout in the metro area.

“They ran a ‘Rose Garden’ operation,” the source said, “and did virtually nothing for House candidates. They weren’t out there touring the state to drive out votes for Democrats.”

The party also suffered from a lack of organization, according to Bernie Hesse, legislative and political action director for the UFCW Local 1189 union. Hesse said the DFL should try to unite its various constituencies in outstate regions — “small farmers, immigrants, and what I would call the ‘rural poor,’” he said — to form a more coherent ground game heading into the next election, adding that the construction of similar bulwarks managed to stave off tough challenges for suburban members this year.

“In the east metro,” Hesse said, “there’s always going to be close races, but we’ve pretty much staked out some DFL territory there.”

Lesson 4: Outside spending won it — for both sides.

It was an old question, but it seemed worth revisiting on Thursday morning, as members of Jeff Johnson’s political team reflected on their loss. When, they wondered, would conservatives band together to form a legitimate counterweight to Alliance for a Better Minnesota?

The state’s preeminent liberal political action committee spent profusely in the governor’s race, with $550,000 worth of independent expenditures in Dayton’s favor, or more than five times the amount any single conservative group spent attacking Dayton. The difference was even more pronounced in the opposite direction: ABM had total outlays of $2.2 million criticizing Johnson, more than 20 times what various outfits spent on positive messaging for the Republican.

Kolb recalled a conversation early in the general election campaign with Johnson campaign backers, who told him not to worry about the coming barrage of negative ads.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Jeff is ABM-proof,’” Kolb said. “They said, ‘He’s got a clean background, and we’re not worried about it.’”

Kolb said he met that response with incredulity. Peppin, for his part, now thinks ABM was able to put the GOP operation on its back foot, having successfully tarred Johnson as a “Tea Party” candidate who would cut education funding if elected.

“The [ABM] playbook is to define the Republican candidate for governor before that candidate can define themselves,” Peppin said. Recalling the group’s scorching campaign against Tom Emmer in 2010, he added: “For the second election in a row, I think they were able to do that.”

Peppin said Republicans’ only hope to push back against the liberal powerhouse would be the formation of a single political group that unites the disparate business and social-interest conservatives. But he wondered aloud if those groups would feel such a move necessary, given that their spending in individual legislative districts was effective in flipping control of the state House.

Peppin’s suspicions were essentially confirmed by Weaver, who said his group and others were pleased with their impact on House elections. Independent expenditure groups are barred from collaborating with candidates or parties, but not with each other, and Weaver said those funds had exhibited “seamless coordination” during the fall.

“We were more organized in this election than we’ve ever been — focused, smart, collaborative,” Weaver said, explaining that the pro-business PACs had effectively divvied up spending duties for competitive races.

That spending proved vital to regaining the House, especially given the still-weakened state of the Republican Party of Minnesota, which was dramatically outspent by its DFL counterparts this year. To Weaver’s way of thinking, it is more important that these funds work together than that they merge under one umbrella. Competing with the money spent for Dayton, or the even more outsized funds that backed Franken, would be a reach for conservative PACs.

But of “probably 20 seats” those organizations spent in during this campaign, Weaver said, Republicans took more than half, and won the privilege of introducing the first set of bills when the Legislature convenes in January.

Thom Petersen, a Democrat and Farmers Union lobbyist, said the flood of spending probably helped drive down DFL turnout in his House District 11B, where Faust was hit with a flurry of negative mailed pieces.

“It was one or two a day,” Petersen said. “There were maybe 50 in just the last month and a half. There’s something very personal about those kind of hit pieces in legislative races — you don’t get that same effect in the other races.”

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