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Minnesota Is Not Massachusetts: How Norm Coleman (Probably) Survived the Democratic Wave

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As we approach a month since Election Day, many DFLers continue to lament that if Norm Coleman should hold onto his US Senate seat after the statewide recount, it is not because Coleman won the race, but because the DFL lost it – specifically, by nominating a ‘weak’ and controversial candidate in Al Franken. In short, the DFL believes it had the right message, but the wrong messenger.

The argument goes something like this: in a Democratic wave election year, like 2008, the only way a Republican like Norm Coleman (who DFL loyalists also view as a weak candidate) could get re-elected is because he squared off against an even weaker candidate in Al Franken. (Smart Politics recently documented why a Coleman victory would be the greatest GOP Senate triumph in Minnesota history). Similar grumblings about 2006 DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch were heard after Tim Pawlenty narrowly won re-election in 2006.

This DFL mindset ignores several key facts.

First, people forget that Norm Coleman was a reasonably popular Senator with Minnesotans until the brutality of the 2008 campaign (with its controversial ad war, for which Coleman is significantly to blame) began to sink his ratings in the late summer and early autumn of this year. In fact, Coleman was still enjoying job approval ratings as U.S. Senator in the 50s as late as April 2008, and eclipsed the 50 percent mark in 6 of 7 polls from November 2007 to April 2008. Over his Senatorial career, Coleman’s disapproval numbers only overtook his approval numbers in 1 out of 43 polls from February 2003 through mid-August 2008.

Secondly, even if one assumes, arguendo, that Al Franken was a weak candidate, this has not stopped the DFL from unseating other 1-term GOP incumbents with less than all-star candidates before. In fact, they’ve done it this decade when Mark Dayton defeated Rod Grams in 2000 (although Dayton never quite faced the unfavorable numbers that Franken endured during his campaign). Moreover, if the DFL hadn't nominated Franken, how much money would the Party have raised to unseat Coleman (especially outside of Minnesota) to combat the Republican Senator's own impressive campaign warchest?

Thirdly, although the DFL has benefited greatly from the Democratic wave in the past two election cycles at the state legislative level, it has not translated into much success in high profile statewide and Congressional races.

In other words, if the DFL is carrying the ‘right message’ for Minnesotans, how is it that that the Republican Party held the governorship in 2006, held 6 out of 7 Congressional seats since 2006, and appears to have held, subject to the recount, the most fiercely fought Senate race in state history?

While the DFL can choose to criticize Franken in hindsight as a flame-throwing celebrity, how do they account for these other high profile losses? Are DFL supporters prepared to say all of the DFL nominees in these races were ‘weak candidates’ without good credentials?

The DFL has nominated a variety of different candidate ‘types’ against the GOP since 2006 – all of whom came up short: a longtime DFL party loyalist, former Commerce Commissioner, and 2-time statewide winner for Attorney General (in Mike Hatch), an activist (in Patty Wetterling), a federal whistleblower (in Coleen Rowley), an amiable former Transportation Commissioner (in El Tinklenberg), and an Iraqi war veteran and supposed rising star of the Party (in Ashwin Madia). These candidates are not cut from the same cloth – and certainly are not in the mold of Al Franken.

Only Tim Walz (CD-01) successfully met the challenge to ride the Democratic wave into office, and he was clearly aided in 2006 by numerous gaffes made by Gil Gutknecht during his last term in office.

Psychologically, it appears the DFL would rather denigrate the credentials (or character) of its losing nominees, rather than acknowledge what is apparent to most nonpartisan observers:

First, a plurality – if not a majority – of statewide or district-wide Minnesotans are actually voting for Republicans in these high profile contests.

Secondly, Norm Coleman has the credentials (when he’s not slinging mud in ad wars) that make him the type of Republican many Minnesotans (especially moderates and independents) can get behind: Coleman actually has a record of bipartisanship, especially during the last four years of his term. Coleman voted with the GOP leadership just 79 percent of the time in his 1st term (Mark Dayton and Amy Klobuchar, at 93 percent, were much more inclined to rubber stamp their party's position). Only Representatives Collin Peterson and Jim Ramstad voted less with their party leadership across the Minnesota Congressional delegation since 2003. As odd as it may sound, by D.C. standards, Coleman is just a few votes against his party leadership shy of being a ‘maverick.’

In short, Minnesota is not Massachusetts (yet), and there are reasons why high-profile Republican candidates have been successful in the Gopher State during the past two election cycles beyond the purported deficiencies of the DFL nominees.

As a result, though we will not know for certain for a few weeks until the recount is complete, it appears Norm Coleman (like Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Erik Paulsen, and John Kline) faced the Democratic wave head-on..and apparently survived.

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6 Comments


  • The DFL is its own worst problem. There is simply no way to be competitive when you force candidates to waste the spring before the election kissing DFL delegates' butts. I was acutely embarrassed to be called by Mike Ciresi last spring. There is no reason on earth why a candidate for U.S. Senate should have to spend time on the phone with county delegates who under no reasonable circumstances would ever vote Republican. But DFL candidates have to do this dog and delegate show to win the precious DFL endorsement.

    It's this endorsement process that wreaks havoc. Instead of working to win over independents and self-identified Democrats, candidates are forced to waste their time pursuing an endorsement that in most states is routinely given to the primary winner.

    Not in Minnesota where the extremely late primary allows the DFLers to chant their mantra, "September is too late, we have to rally around a candidate now." A bizarre mantra given that DFL-endorsed candidates then spend the summer hiding from primary challengers.

    You simply cannot have a successful state party when you allow party regulars to wield so much power. In normal states where the primary winner has to compete for votes statewide, you get much stronger candidates. Since moving to Minnesota in '88, I've seen statewide candidates who couldn't have won a legislative primary but who had the endorsement handed to them by groupthink DFLers who routinely fail utterly to understand how little they understand of the state zeitgeist.

    Winning general elections is about demonstrating your understanding of average people's issues. Winning an endorsement is about wooing "elites."

    Move the primary to June, and rewrite the DFL constitution to prohibit endorsement conventions prior to the primary. Do this and you'll see some very strong candidates coming out of the woodwork to kick Republican butt.

  • Here are some more facts showing that Minnesota is not Massachussetts (or New York, or Illinois, or Washington, etc., etc.):

    Obama's margin in MN (+10) was smaller than in any other "blue state" (i.e., states carried by the Democrat presidential candidate in both 2000 and 2004 -- this includes states McCain spent tons of time and money in, like Pennsylvania and Michigan).

    Also, Obama's margin in Minnesota was smaller than his margin in Nevada (+12) -- a state Bush carried in both 2000 and 2004 and one where McCain spent lots of time and money.

  • You say above that "the Republican Party...held 6 out of 7 Congressional seats since 2006."

    In the current makeup of the Minnesota delegation to the House of Representatives, there are 3 Republicans, not 6.

    Seeing as this is a major premise upon which you've built your argument...

    Maybe you'd like to post a correction?

  • > You say above that "the Republican Party...held 6 out of 7
    > Congressional seats since 2006."

    A correction is not needed as these are the facts: In 2006, the GOP won 3 of 4 U.S. House seats (Districts 2, 3, and 6; losing District 1). In 2008, the GOP won all 3 of its seats (Districts 2, 6, and the open 3rd District). That makes 6 out of 7 U.S. House races won since 2006.

  • Eric,
    I appreciate your reply, but think that your original statement was not easy to interpret in the manner that you say it makes sense.

    In fact, the ratio of six out of seven is NOT strictly accurate in its connotations, since the number of seven requires a qualifier (-- six out of seven races "that had GOP incumbents or were open"), right?

    It's true that the GOP won six out of sixteen House races in MN in two election years, as stated with no qualifier on the base number in the ratio.

    Or, if I'm wrong in my quick math and even quicker sense of MN House seats, please tell me how. Thanks.

    Michael Swanson

  • > In fact, the ratio of six out of seven is NOT strictly accurate in
    > its connotations, since the number of seven requires a
    > qualifier (-- six out of seven races "that had GOP incumbents
    > or were open"), right?

    What you (and others) are failing to capture is that I wrote "held" not "won." (My exact wording was "held 6 out of 7 Congressional seats since 2006").

    That word choice was intentional as a "held seat" by a party has a specific meaning in political news. In short, it means "successfully defending a seat." That is to say, Gil Gutknecht did not "hold" his 1st CD seat against Tim Walz. But all other districts that were "held" by the GOP going into the 2006 and 2008 elections were won (successfully held) by the GOP.

    And, yes, you can "hold" an open seat (like the 3rd CD in 2008). Because, if a party does not hold it, that district is a "pick-up" for the opposing party.

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