Editor’s note: Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Minnesota Lawyer.
Deadline day for candidates filing for Minnesota’s Aug. 14 primary election produced a beehive of activity at Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office at the State Capitol. The scrum of aspiring candidates brought to mind the frantic 1889 Oklahoma land rush and the hilarious, overcrowded stateroom fracas in the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy “A Night at the Opera.”
Most of the late filers on the June 5 deadline day were DFLers, ready to spurn the gubernatorial and attorney general candidates endorsed at the previous weekend’s state DFL convention. The confusion suggested the renewed timeliness of the Will Rogers’ crack from 1935: “I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat.”
The big DFL battles involve a gubernatorial primary including three major candidate tickets, five candidates for attorney general, five candidates in the 8th Congressional District primary and a whopping six candidates in the 5th Congressional District primary. The convention-endorsed candidates for governor, Erin Murphy, and attorney general, Matt Pelikan, can hardly be considered favorites in their races.
Republicans have only one statewide office in which the convention-endorsed candidate faces a major primary challenge, but it is an important one. Former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty stands a good chance of defeating Jeff Johnson, the convention-endorsed candidate and 2014 gubernatorial general election loser, in the August primary. There is also a contested primary in the 1st Congressional District.
What broader implications can we draw from this big array of primary candidates? There are at least five worth noting.
First, both major parties’ state convention endorsement processes are in tatters. The caucus/convention process, involving a microscopic percentage of the electorate, is now the playpen of an exotic array of ideological extremists. The conventions’ choices for governor — DFLer Erin Murphy and GOPer Jeff Johnson — do not feature statewide electability among their traits. Murphy is unknown beyond her liberal St. Paul state House district. Johnson is the loser of a 2014 statewide race for governor.
A striking repudiation of the DFL convention can be found in the choice of Keith Ellison, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, to challenge the convention-endorsed Matt Pelikan, who has never run for office before, for the party’s attorney general nomination. Pelikan’s primary chances are less than promising.
Second, Ellison’s candidacy for attorney general illustrates the frustrations of serving in the U.S. House’s minority party. Despite the possibility of Democrats returning to majority status in the U.S. House, he has decided that his impact would be greater as Minnesota’s attorney general. He clearly intends to use the office to engage in energetic litigation against the Trump administration.
Third, the primary may help produce important information about the future of progressivism in Minnesota. Should they prevail in the August primary voting, Ellison and Murphy represent two of the most liberal areas in the state. Can the progressive agenda gain electoral victories beyond these core constituencies? The 2016 election suggested that, in contrast, the GOP was gaining greater statewide popularity. The November 2016 balloting will give us a reading on whether 2016 was a GOP blip or a GOP trend and may reveal whether progressives have statewide appeal.
Fourth, the candidate filings reveal which areas of the state will dominate primary voting. On the DFL side, the 5th Congressional District in Minneapolis and the 8th Congressional District in northeastern Minnesota will produce high turnout.
That’s because both areas feature highly competitive primaries for U.S. representative and each has an incumbent officeholder now running statewide — Ellison for attorney general and 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan for lieutenant governor on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Lori Swanson. High turnout in Ellison’s and Nolan’s home districts will give them an important boost in the primary.
Fifth, which party eventually benefits from the current candidate confusion? Democrats will spend lots of money fighting among themselves between now and primary day Aug. 14 when they would much rather devote those funds to the general election campaign.
That’s not a death knell for Democrats in the gubernatorial campaign, though. Divisive primaries do not necessarily produce losing candidates in November. Arne Carlson in 1994 and Mark Dayton in 2010 survived bruising primary fights to win the governorship. It’s also not clear whether Tim Pawlenty, who never won 50 percent of the vote in his two gubernatorial victories, can muster the votes to win in 2018 if he prevails in his party’s primary.
Much depends on the tone of the intraparty competition among the candidates between now and August. Slashing personal and issue attacks may damage any primary winner. A more civil tone may allow any primary victor to emerge without many scars for the November election.
What’s clear is that very little is clear about the August primary and November general election results. In addition to the many battles previously described, two U.S. Senate races and control of the State House will be decided in November. What the candidate profusion of June indicates is that it’s anyone’s guess who will be 2018’s electoral winners.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.