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One Close Race for Governor. Two Flawed Front-Runners.

Both major parties in Minnesota are holding their endorsement conventions this weekend. Only one of the front-runners is seeking their party's approval.

Tim Pawlenty 2018
Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty isn't even seeking his party's nomination at the GOP state convention this weekend.
(Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
The race for governor in Minnesota will likely be one of the nation's closest this year, but neither party appears to be satisfied with its leading candidate.

The race is open because incumbent Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton decided not to seek reelection. Both parties are holding their state conventions this weekend, with formal endorsements of gubernatorial candidates set for Saturday.

But the top candidates on both sides have a problem.

"There are two front-runners no one is enthusiastic about and may limp to a nomination," says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University.

The leading Republican candidate, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty who officially announced his candidacy in April, had been out of the political game since his poor showing in the 2012 presidential race. He's finding that his party has since changed in ways that are putting his prospects to the test.

"Not only is he open to Democratic attacks, but he's also weak among the base," says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. "He is not even running for the party endorsement, having accepted the reality that he couldn't win or even block [Hennepin County Commissioner] Jeff Johnson from winning the endorsement. The former governor is that disliked among Republicans."

But Jacobs stresses that Pawlenty remains a skilled candidate and a formidable fundraiser. Most people in Minnesota political circles believe he will end up winning the voters' nomination in the Aug. 14 primary, given Johnson's weak fundraising efforts. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are nervous that Congressman Tim Walz, who has been leading the field in terms of fundraising and endorsements, is himself not the sort of exciting candidate who sets political hearts throbbing.

"Walz is the front-runner but has the DFL establishment increasingly worried that he's out of his league," Jacobs says. (In Minnesota, the party is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL.)

To earn the party's endorsement this weekend, Walz must win 60 percent of the votes from convention delegates. His main challenger has appeared to be state Auditor Rebecca Otto, but the candidacy of state Rep. Erin Murphy, who has picked up some key labor endorsements, appears to be gaining momentum.

"The numbers just aren't clear," says state Sen. Matt Little, a Walz supporter. "Even the internal numbers that folks have aren't an exact number. People change their minds."

Walz represents parts of southern Minnesota, and he has taken some more conservative positions in Congress that now aren't playing well in the progressive wing of a party increasingly dominated by urban liberals in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. In 2015, for instance, Walz voted to tighten screening on refugees coming from Syria and Iraq, a stance for which even his running mate, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, has publicly given him grief. Walz has accepted campaign donations over the years from the National Rifle Association (NRA), but he has recently donated them to charity, saying his stance on gun issues has evolved given recent mass shootings.

Like a lot of "establishment" Democratic candidates this year, Walz finds himself under attack from the party's rising left flank.

"Tim Walz's lack of support for single-payer health care and his long history of pro-NRA, pro-pipeline, pro-mining, anti-refugee, pro-drilling, anti-wildlife votes may not inspire the Metro DFL to turn out," Otto's campaign website warns.

Sen. Little believes Walz still has "a pretty solid chance of winning the endorsement." If he fails, the primary season will become more expensive and difficult for him. He'll face attacks from the left heading into a low turnout, midsummer primary. But so far this year, Democratic establishment candidates have fared pretty well against more progressive challengers.

"Dayton was never endorsed by the DFL and went on to win and become beloved by all parts of the party," Little says.

On the Republican side, Johnson has attacked Pawlenty for shying away from the endorsement battle.

"If he can't even compete for the support of his base, he'll be a disaster in the general election," Johnson said when Pawlenty announced his decision to skip the process.

Little says it's a "little disingenuous" for Pawlenty to claim he got into the race too late to compete -- he had clearly been exploring the run for about a year. Pawlenty has opened himself up to populist attacks through his recent work as head of the Financial Services Roundtable, a Wall Street trade association. He has also had to fend off charges from Johnson that he was an extremely late convert to Donald Trump's candidacy in 2016.

Greg Bartz, who chairs the Brown County GOP, describes himself as "disappointed" that Pawlenty didn't even give the endorsement process a go.

"I really thought he was a great governor for eight years, but if you're running for office, you need to come out where the voters are," Bartz says. "When people running for office more or less ignore you, that is really disappointing. It's hard to volunteer for someone who kind of ignores you."

Minnesota is seen from the outside as a blue state. No Republican has won statewide office since Pawlenty himself in 2006, and Minnesota has the longest unbroken streak of voting for Democratic presidential candidates of any state, due to its singular support for home-state nominee Walter Mondale in 1984.

But Trump came close to winning the state in 2016, taking 44.9 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton's 46.4 percent. Trump carried some traditionally Democratic parts of Minnesota, notably the old union mining area in the northeast known as the Iron Range. Barack Obama carried the state's 8th congressional district in both his presidential elections, but Trump won it decisively, defeating Clinton by 15 percentage points.

That district, which is open this year, represents one of the Republican Party's best pickup opportunities for the U.S. House. Half the state's eight congressional races are considered tossups or highly competitive this year, meaning a great deal of outside money will come flooding in. That's on top of two U.S. Senate races, with the seat vacated by Democrat Al Franken and now held by Tina Smith considered sufficiently competitive to draw big money.

"We may just see tens of millions of dollars poured into this election," Schulz says.

Democrats, including the eventual nominee for governor, will be counting on the popularity of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to boost their ticket as a whole. They'll be hoping that enthusiasm for her and concerns about Trump will drive their voters to the polls. 

"With all the campaigns that are going to be drawing national attention, it's kind of odd that the governor's race could fall into the backdrop," Sen. Little says. "That never happens here. Usually the governor's race is the most closely watched. But if you're a governor candidate, your $4 million or $5 million is going to seem like nothing for a media buy."

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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