All in: Handicapping the 2010 DFL gubernatorial field

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When union workers at Regina Medical Center in Hastings off the job for two days last month to highlight a contract dispute, their cause drew a few noteworthy supporters. On day one the workers were joined by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark and House Speaker Margaret Anderson-Kelliher. The next day Rep. Paul Thissen and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton helped rally support for their cause.

While the Democratic pols were no doubt sincere in their support for the workers, their presence was conspicuous for another reason: each are on the (not-so-short) list of potential 2010 gubernatorial candidates. With this year’s election (almost) out of the way, attention will soon turn to the 2010 contest. On the Republican side, there is only one relevant question: Will Gov. Tim Pawlenty run for a third term? The incumbent would surely clear the field (save for the odd screwball challenger) if he chooses to seek a three-peat.

But on the Democratic side, seemingly every pol who’s ever been elected to the Lake Elmo City Council is salivating at the prospect of taking back the Governor’s mansion — whether or not Pawlenty runs again. There are currently three credible announced challengers: Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, Sen. Tom Bakk, and Rep. Paul Thissen. The former arguably enjoys the best name recognition and brings considerable law-enforcement bona fides, but will have a tough time endearing herself to the (liberal) DFL faithful. Bakk is chairman of the powerful Taxes Committee, potentially the only Iron Range-er in the field and enjoys strong labor support. He’ll undoubtedly be a factor in the DFL-endorsement battle. Thissen is perhaps the least known of the declared candidates, but brings a formidable resume: Harvard undergrad; editor of the law review at the University of Chicago; partner at Briggs and Morgan.

“It was my judgment that somebody sitting in my position, who may be less known than some of the other candidates, needs to get an early start,” says Thissen, who figures he visited half the counties in the state during the recently concluded campaign season. “I think it will be really good for the party and Minnesota to have a number of choices as we move through this process. (Iron range blogger Aaron Brown recently published an interview with Thissen.)

Beyond this trio of contenders, what the field will ultimately look like is mere speculation. U.S. Rep. Tim Walz would undoubtedly climb to the top of the heap if he decides to run. His name recognition and charisma, along with the fact that he just won a landslide re-election victory in a part of the state that traditionally favors Republican candidates, would be an enticing combination for Democrats. (Walz’s office declined to comment on his plans for 2010.)

Two other candidates — former House Democratic Leader Matt Entenza and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton — would immediately be legitimate contenders for a slightly different reason: money. The latter is (of course) an heir to the department store empire, while Entenza’s wife is a high-powered executive and major DFL donor. Either could bypass the DFL endorsement and proceed straight to a primary contest.

Entenza did not return a call seeking comment, but he’s all but certain to enter the race. “Entenza’s definitely in and full speed ahead,” says Roy Magnuson, a veteran DFL activist. “I’m inclined to believe he has a pretty good plan.” Dayton’s intentions are less well known, but the former Senator made it clear that he still wants to be a serious player by throwing the biggest bash at the state convention in June.

Twin Cities mayors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman face the same dilemma in weighing a gubernatorial bid: they have to run for re-election next year. This means they’d be forced to then turn around and immediately declare their candidacy for the state’s top job — a feat of political jujutsu that not even the notoriously nimble Norm Coleman could pull off.

Rybak has said he’ll announce his intentions before Christmas. Coleman claims to be focused solely on retaining his mayoral post. “We don’t think that on the heels of a four year presidential campaign and in the middle of a financial crisis that the public is interested in a two-year gubernatorial race,” notes communications director Bob Hume, in an email. “Mayor Coleman is running for re-election and is proud of what we’re accomplishing in Saint Paul.”

The last legislative session saw two women emerge as the most conspicuous faces of the DFL at the Capitol, Margaret Anderson-Kelliher and Tarryl Clark. Both drew plaudits for their level-headed leadership and ability to work with Gov. Pawlenty, sparking speculation that they might be interested in taking his job. A looming $5.2 billion budget deficit will undoubtedly mean a much messier legislative scrum this time around, with no one emerging politically unscathed. Don’t expect either Andeson-Kelliher or Clark to announce their intentions until after the session ends.

Other DFLers rumored to be in the mix: former Sen. Steve Kelley and Reps. Joe Atkins and Tom Rukavina. With the race still nearly two years out, the field will undoubtedly continue to shift. But whatever transpires, judging by the long line of DFL politicos at the strike in Hastings last month, one thing is certain: there will be many Democrats vying for the Governor’s mansion in 2010.