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Attorney General Lori Swanson listens to her new running mate, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, shortly after Swanson declared her candidacy for governor Monday. Nolan will run beside her for lieutenant governor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Attorney General Lori Swanson listens to her new running mate, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, shortly after Swanson declared her candidacy for governor Monday. Nolan will run beside her for lieutenant governor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Suddenly, the attorney general race is white hot

Two days after DFL delegates threw their weight behind the young newcomer, party heavyweights lined up Tuesday to file papers to run against Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan in the race to replace state Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Though she led 52-47 percent after the first round of convention balloting on Saturday, Swanson abandoned her renomination attempt for her current seat without even appearing on stage. She announced Monday that she will instead compete in the primary for governor, with running mate and retiring U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan at her side.

Swanson’s moves have given the normally sleepy race for attorney general white-hot interest as DFL party stalwarts ranging from former Attorney General Mike Hatch and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison to state Rep. Deb Hilstrom, former Rep. Ryan Winkler and several others either had filed Tuesday or considered it.

How did we get here?

Stage management

A. John Peters is a DFL delegate from Browerville, Minnesota. An information technology professional and technical college instructor, Peters is a relatively new party delegate. He was at the DFL convention in Rochester over the weekend.

Peters said he saw signals that Pelikan would do well in the early rounds of balloting. For one thing, he said, more delegates were milling around wearing Pelikan gear than Swanson paraphernalia.

“She didn’t enthuse anybody,” Peters said.

Then Pelikan gave progressives a red-meat speech in which he blasted Swanson’s record. Swanson received an A-plus rating from the NRA, Pelikan told delegates. She was slow to join the fight over net neutrality, he said, and was inactive in the marriage equality struggle. She entered, then backed out of a lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s travel ban, he said, and settled the 3M lawsuit “for 15 cents on the dollar.”

“I am running for attorney general because now is the time that we need strong and progressive leaders who are ready to join us in the fight,” he said.

It was a rousing performance, said Peters—the second-best candidate speech of the weekend after upstart former GOP White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter, who is trying to unseat the DFL’s U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.

Swanson’s turn then came to make her pitch—but she never did. Instead a crowd of surrogates, including Hatch, crowded the stage. Hatch gave a short statement jabbing Pelikan’s lack of courtroom bona fides and general lack of experience.

“You can’t be in a wading pool and think you can swim in the ocean,” Hatch said.

A lot of delegates didn’t take well to that, Peters said.

The 15 minutes Swanson and her allies were allotted to make their case ended clumsily. Convention managers cut off any remaining speakers to move onto balloting. Swanson never made it to the podium—it’s not clear if she intended to.

“At that point you could see that things were going to go to the more emotional people,” Peters said. And the emotional people, he said, were with Pelikan.

Winkler was himself running for attorney general before Swanson declared for re-election to that seat; he is now the DFL’s endorsed House District 46A candidate. He was in Rochester, too.

He faulted Swanson and her allies for bad stage management. He said that delegates he spoke with chafed at Swanson’s failure to take the podium—some felt she took the nomination for granted, Winkler said. That, combined with a base-stirring speech from her opponent, generated a wave of protest votes, Winkler said.

Still, Peters and Winkler agree that Pelikan’s strong 47 percent showing came as a shock—even to some who voted for him, they reckon. Both men think some delegates only wanted to register a protest, then planned to get serious in later rounds by voting for Swanson. They never got the chance.

“She would have won,” Winkler said. “But she just quit. She walked out.”

Swanson was not as certain she would have prevailed had she stuck it out. “Who knows?” she said Monday. “You don’t know how balloting goes.”

As to stage management, Hatch suggested Swanson didn’t need to appear in person Saturday—everyone already knows her. “After 12 years in office, if they wanted to endorse her, great,” Hatch said. “If they didn’t want to, that’s fine, too.”

Hatch and Swanson both said that activists distributed a bevy of pledge cards at the convention asking candidates to commit to various left-wing causes that, as attorney general, Swanson was uncomfortable endorsing.

Among pledges they want her to sign, Hatch said, was one that said, “Will you demilitarize the police?”

“I mean, it was an extremely liberal crowd,” Hatch said.

Swanson cited those demands as a reason to drop out. They made it clear to her, once the first ballot came back with big support for her opponent, that it was time to consider other options, she said.

“And this [running for governor] is what we are doing today,” Swanson said.

On to the primary

With the Swanson/Nolan team’s entrance, the DFL primary ballot in the race for governor has gotten rather crowded. The party endorsed Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, a former House majority leader last weekend. She named Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, as her running mate.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who failed to secure the DFL endorsement, also will be on the same primary ballot with his running mate, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park. As of Monday, they were joined by Swanson and Nolan.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto suspended her gubernatorial campaign Monday after attracting weak support at the convention.

On the GOP side, gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson and his running mate, Donna Bergstrom, face a primary challenge from former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Fischbach. She is Gov. Mark Dayton’s current lieutenant governor and recently resigned from the state Senate. She signed on as Pawlenty’s running mate shortly thereafter.

But the race for governor is always a hot ticket. Stunningly, there could be even more primary action in the attorney general’s race.

Before Tuesday’s filing deadline on Tuesday, Hatch filed papers to win back his old job—though he said he might back out if a strong candidate capable of winning a statewide election should step forward.

He specifically mentioned Hilstrom, Winkler and former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. Hilstrom filed her attorney general candidacy early Tuesday. On Wednesday, Hatch withdrew, telling Minnesota Public Radio he was satisfied with the field of candidates.

Around noon Tuesday, Ellison filed to run for attorney general. Early reports indicated that would leave his U.S. House seat but retain his slot as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Rothman filed hours before the 4:30 deadline, as did former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley. St. Paul City Attorney Samuel Clark, who ran briefly for attorney general earlier this year, decided Tuesday to throw his support behind Ellison.

Winkler also took his name out of consideration Tuesday to focus on the state House contest. “Today is a good day to not dive head first into a dumpster fire,” he wrote on Twitter.

Doug Wardlow, constitutional attorney for Christian legal advocacy group the Alliance Defending Freedom and a former state representative, is the GOP’s endorsed candidate for attorney general.

Also running under the GOP banner is Sharon Anderson, who has been a candidate for many offices, including president of the United States; and 87-year old Bob Lessard, a retired state senator.

Steven Schier, the longtime Carleton College political science professor, said he has never seen anything to replicate this year’s intense interest in the attorney general’s race. The convention results, he said, were equally stunning.

“This is something new,” he said. “What it reflects is a divergence between elected officials and the activists who run the conventions.”

Democrats have owned the attorney general’s office for decades, Schier said. Even so, the explosion of interest suggests progressives might be catching up to conservatives in valuing the attorney general’s seat—and the judiciary in general—as a political tool in furtherance of liberal causes.

“The progressive agenda will be that if you lose in the elections, you try to win in the courts,” Schier said. “That’s certainly what conservatives have been doing for a considerable period of time. Progressives in Minnesota will employ that strategy as well.”

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