Nearly every Minnesota politico is “ready for Hillary,” if the Democratic front-runner’s recent swing through town is any indication. That preparedness manifests in different ways for different people.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has maintained a grueling campaign pace since declaring her presidential candidacy, and sandwiched her Twin Cities stop in between major speeches on race, gun control and the Confederate flag in San Francisco, on Saturday, and Missouri, on Tuesday.
The former first lady made sure her one-night engagement was worth the trip. A backyard fundraising event at the Minneapolis home of Ellen Goldberg Luger, wife of U.S. Attorney Richard Luger, reportedly came with an entry fee of $2,700 per person — the maximum amount for an individual donation. The steep ticket price wasn’t too much for a number of the state’s most prominent Democrats: Gov. Mark Dayton and former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale were both on hand, among dozens of guests.
Clinton received a decidedly less warm reception from the Republican Party of Minnesota, which took a preemptive opposition to the nature of her stop, a private fundraiser, and with no public appearances or press availability during her Minnesota layover. Party chairman Keith Downey and deputy chair Chris Fields called Clinton’s behavior “shady” repeatedly during a Monday morning press conference, and both slammed her for avoiding public scrutiny and focusing on big-dollar donations while claiming to run a “transformational” campaign.
“The person, the candidate, who is presenting herself as a champion, and a fighter for everyday folks, won’t present her ideas for how to help those folks in the press, and barely interacts with them,” Downey said.
Clinton’s supporters shrug off that line of attack. Lt. Gov. Tina Flint Smith, who attended the Monday event, said Clinton’s effort to build a campaign war chest is a reflection of political reality, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
“It takes an increasingly huge amount to run campaigns,” Smith said. “It’s no surprise that people running for president, Republican or Democrat, need to raise the dollars for them to compete, and to be able to have this conversation with America.”
Clinton’s more public “conversation” with most Minnesotans might have to wait, but her biggest challenger within the Democratic field has taken a different approach to the state, and to his campaign. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist and a hero of the progressive left, drew an audience approaching 5,000 during a June appearance in Minneapolis. The appearance was a boon to the insurgent candidacy, and Sanders has continued to draw big crowds to events in Nevada and Denver, Colorado. Andrew Virden, a DFL campaign veteran and the interim state director of Sanders’ campaign, helped organize those events as well as his stop in Minneapolis, and said a progressive candidacy based on “people power” recalls the legacy of Minnesota U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“[Sanders] is not relying on money as the sole means of winning an election,” Virden said, adding that, aside from himself, every Sanders supporter in Minnesota is currently working on a volunteer basis. “I’m constantly impressed with the work they’re able to do on Facebook, on mailing lists, coming up with ideas for [Twin Cities] Pride Weekend, for the State Fair, for Farmfest. They’re basically self-organizing.”
Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced Sanders to the energetic, standing-room-only crowd, though that was not part of the plan. Clark was recruited to be Sanders’ warm-up act at the last moment, as his intended presenter ran late; her off-the-cuff remarks were a fitting opener for Sanders, who is known for veering off loosely prepared scripts at his public engagements. Clark said her support for Sanders is not a slight to the presumptive nominee.
“I do think he’ll bring people aboard that Hillary can’t,” Clark said. “But it’s really more about him than about her. He talks about the ‘billionaire’ class… in a way that she’s not talking about it.”
Clinton gave just brief remarks on Monday night, but both Smith and Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, complimented the front-runner for clearly outlining a “vision” of what ails Americans, and how to address those issues.
“She talked about universal pre-K, and what student debt, and climate change could do to our economy … and to working-class families’ economic opportunities,” Murphy said.
The former state House majority leader first got to know Clinton in the early 1990s, when her husband, Bill Clinton, first ran for president, and Murphy served as a volunteer campaign organizer. Murphy said Hillary Clinton’s long relationship with the American voters should mean there is less burden on her to introduce herself to voters, and is confident Clinton could gain the same groundswell of support Barack Obama received in 2008.
Obama won Minnesota’s Democratic caucus soundly in 2008, 66 percent to Clinton’s 32 percent, one of several key “Super Tuesday” states Obama won on his way to the party nomination.” Smith backed Obama that year, but said she had always been planning to root for Clinton if the former Cabinet member and U.S. senator entered the 2016 field.
Both top-tier candidates used Minnesota, the most consistently Democratic state in presidential elections, as a wellspring for cash that year. Clinton raised more than $1 million from Minnesota, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and Obama eventually took in about $4.5 million, more than twice the amount Republican John McCain got from Minnesota donors.
Conservatives in this state should get used to the sight of Democratic visitors, both for cash and campaign rallies, according to Jennifer DeJournett, president of Voices of Conservative Women. The state’s proximity to Iowa, the first caucus state, and its liberal donor base make Minnesota a natural choice for political itineraries.
“It would be like a Republican going to Texas to raise money,” DeJournett said. “Just think of the companies we have here — Target, 3M, all these Fortune 500 companies. It’s a great place for [Democrats] to get some money, then just fly out of Minneapolis back to Iowa, or to Wisconsin.”
At least one conservative outlet seemed to welcome Clinton’s appearance. The Minnesota Jobs Coalition played up the Democrat’s potential to hurt down-ballot DFL candidates in 2016, when the presidential contest will be the only statewide election on Minnesota ballots. Just 35 percent of Minnesotans polled in 16 “swing districts” approve of Clinton, according to a poll commissioned by the conservative fundraising group, placing her 9 points less popular than Obama. The group declined to name which districts were surveyed, but clarified that it included 11 House districts Republicans regained from the DFL in 2014.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, current holder of one such seat, said it’s a “good question” how Clinton might affect his own race next year. (Baker could wind up in a rematch against former Rep. Mary Sawatzky, who has declared her intention to run again.)
“It sort of depends on if it is the ‘year of the woman,’ like some people think, or hope it will be,” Baker said. “Hillary has so much history, and it matters if that’s seen as baggage, or experience, or exposure to top-level things.”
Baker said constituents rarely mention national politics, and then only out of exasperation. He also said turnout could turn on which Republican candidate is chosen — “there’s only 300 of them running,” he deadpanned — and said he, personally, would prefer a GOP choice with state-level executive experience, like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush.
But Democrats are generally bullish about the national election’s impact on local elections here, observing that Minnesota’s traditionally high voter turnout spikes in presidential years, and tends to bring out a wider pool of DFL voters than mid-terms. Both Clark, recalling the crowd gathered for Sanders, and Smith, who has also attended a pair of Clinton organizing events, spoke glowingly of the diverse group of supporters who are engaged in the Democratic campaign at such an early stage.
“But I do think,” Smith said, “at the end of the day, these [state] House members and these senators are going to win on how well they’re calibrating their message, and their approach to their dist. It’s more about, what are you going to do with that bigger pool of voters?”