Lessons From Minnesota’s Primaries

Minnesota is the eye of the hurricane this year, with two Senate seats at stake, at least four competitive House elections, and the governorship up for grabs. As much as any other state, it is a barometer for our current politics. Minnesota’s primary election was today, and the results are interesting.

1) Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson defeated former Governor Tim Pawlenty for the GOP governor nomination. This is the one that we Minnesota Republicans were watching most closely. Pawlenty is by far the most talented politician among Minnesota Republicans, but those who paid attention could see his defeat coming a mile away.

Pawlenty has never been very popular with the state’s Republican activists, so he skipped the caucus process and the state’s GOP convention entirely. Johnson got the party’s endorsement by default. Pawlenty’s strategy was basically to ignore Johnson and the endorsement process, and to run a general election campaign starting in the Summer, on the assumption that he could easily brush Johnson aside.

This was fundamentally stupid. Johnson was the Republican nominee four years ago, and he came within 6 points of a sitting governor. He was also, of course, the endorsed candidate. Ignoring him made no sense.

Worse, Pawlenty was out of touch with today’s Republicans. He has spent the last six years in Washington, making a lot of money lobbying for the banking industry. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but those who swim in Washington’s water tend to go soft, sadly.

Further, Pawlenty’s campaign was unfocused. He likes to think of himself as a futurist, talking about possible technological breakthroughs that might impact public policy issues. Fine. Meanwhile, Johnson was talking about bread and butter conservative issues: lower taxes, reduced spending, cutting government waste, less regulation, making Minnesota competitive.

Johnson’s campaign was based largely on work done by my activist policy organization, Center of the American Experiment. Jeff spent two hours with me before he launched his campaign, doing a deep dive into state policy issues. He adopted our themes and repeated, over and over, our data. Guess what: conservative policy prescriptions are popular, especially among Republicans.

If only Minnesota’s donor class had voted, Pawlenty would have won going away. But for those who were in closer touch with the grass roots, it was clear that Pawlenty’s campaign was foundering. It is too bad: if Tim had simply run as a conservative, and paid proper attention to the grass roots, he probably would have won. Instead, Jeff Johnson won the primary easily, 53%-44% with 86% of precincts reporting.

2) The Democrats nominated Tim Walz for Governor, unfortunately. Walz represented Minnesota’s 1st District in Congress for several terms, and resigned effective at the end of the current term to run for governor. That was likely because his margins had been diminishing and he probably would have lost his seat in November, but give him credit for getting out in time. He was running against Erin Murphy, a goofy Twin Cities leftist, and Lori Swanson, the state’s current Attorney General who was marred by political scandal.

I hadn’t seen much of Walz in action and didn’t know why he was successful in a traditionally Republican district until I interviewed him a few weeks ago while serving as a guest host on Minnesota’s premier AM radio station. Now I get it: Walz is highly skilled–almost a genius, really–at talking like a moderate while voting as a leftist.

Walz voted with Nancy Pelosi whenever called upon to do so, throughout his years in Congress. As governor, he will not be a moderate, either. He is a left-wing Democrat–the only kind that exists, really–and will govern as such. But he is extraordinarily skillful at passing himself off as a moderate. Therefore, he will, in all probability, defeat Jeff Johnson in November. But don’t get me wrong: I will do anything I can to support Jeff.

3) Keith Ellison overcame the multiple domestic abuse allegations against him to win the DFL nomination for Attorney General easily, 50% to 19% for his nearest competitor, at last count. This is good, I think. (But I should note that Scott disagrees.) The domestic abuse scandals emerged too late to significantly impact DFL votes, given that most DFLers are on board with Ellison’s far-left ideology and frankly don’t care much about abusing women.

But the general election will be a different matter. I doubt whether a candidate as extreme as Ellison, who has had essentially no contact with Minnesotans outside his urban district, can win a statewide race. We will soon know.

4) Karin Housley, my favorite candidate this cycle, won the GOP nomination for the Senate seat now held by a nonentity appointed to replace Al Franken, Tina Smith. But by a weirdly narrow margin: 62% to 35% over a complete goofball, whose last name was Anderson. Anyone named Anderson or Johnson can run for office in Minnesota, even as a recidivist felon (which this particular Anderson is not, but another Anderson on the ballot is), and get that sort of percentage. It discourages those of us who believe in democracy.

5) Richard Painter, the bogus ethics czar whom Scott has written about on this site a number of times, is lost to the dustbin of history. He won only 14% of the DFL vote in the Senate primary against Tina Smith, who garnered 76%. Dickie, we hardly knew ye.

6) This is most important: Democratic turnout swamped Republican turnout. In the governor’s race on the DFL side, 547,664 votes were cast. In the Republican primary, only 296,213 votes were cast. That is a stunning disparity. Tim Pawlenty, who won two terms as Minnesota’s governor, would have finished fourth on the DFL side. To put it mildly, this does not bode well in an increasingly important swing state.

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