A case study

Patty Wetterling is the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped in 1989 at age 11. While bicycling home from a convenience store with his younger brother and a friend, Jacob was abducted by a masked man wielding a gun. This past weekend Jacob’s family observed the fifteenth anniversary of his disappearance. As indicated by this story from Friday’s St. Cloud Times, state law enforcement authorities have continued to hold the investigation into Jacob’s abduction open.
In the fifteen years since Jacob’s disappearance, Patty Wetterling has founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation and established herself as an almost heroic figure in Minnesota, turning her family’s personal tragedy to the larger cause of child safety. Until this spring, Mrs. Wetterling has maintained a scrupulously apolitical public persona.
In May, however, she announced her candidacy for Minnesota’s sixth district congressional seat held by Republican incumbent Mark Kennedy. In 2000 Kennedy himself knocked off then-incumbent DFL Rep. David Minge through a combination of dogged campaigning and fund-raising agility in a squeaker.
With the district redrawn in 2002, the sprawling suburban/central Minnesota district has included the heart of Minnesota’s active prolife movement and become demonstrably more Republican. In 2002, Kennedy defeated challenger Janet Robert, a largely self-financed multimillionaire, by 22 points.
Mrs. Wetterling’s entry into the sixth district race has turned the race into the only competitive congressional race in the state this year. She has universal name recognition and a deep reservoir of public sympathy. In addition, as might be expected, the press has done its best to create the aura of an impending upset. See, for example, Kevin Duchschere’s October 10 Star Tribune story, “Celebrity status, real person image fuel Patty Wetterling’s upset bid.” Moreover, Mrs. Wetterling has been backed to the hilt in the race by such unlovely supporters as MoveOn.org and Emily’s List, although she doesn’t exactlly proclaim their support within the sixth district.
Running in standard Democratic camouflage, Mrs. Wetterling has held her own in every respect but an ability to debate the issues. Mrs. Wetterling has avoided joint forums with Kennedy to the maximum extent possible, both because she is not knowledgeable about the issues and because her postions are out of sync with sixth district voters. She would prefer to confine the discussion to child safety; who is in favor of child abduction?
Yesterday Kennedy and Mrs. Wetterling held their third and probably final debate. Kevin Duchschere’s account does a good job of conveying the hole that Wetterling’s position on the issues creates for her in debate.
Duchschere reports in passing the results of the first public poll on the race. The poll was commissioned by KSTP, the local ABC television affiliate that carried yesterday’s debate. Taken last week by Gonzales/Boyd Political Consulting (a firm of which I have not previously heard), the poll of 351 likely sixth district voters found Kennedy leading 52 to 34 percent, with 14 percent undecided. I suspect the race is closer than the poll results indicate, but the results are nevertheless striking.
The Star Tribune buries these interesting facts in the last paragraph its story on yesterday’s debate: Ninety-six percent of the poll respondents said they were aware of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction, and while 14 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Mrs. Wetterling, 79 percent said it would have no effect. I draw two conclusions: Sixth district voters are not idiots, and Kennedy will prevail.

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