When DFLers gathered Friday for their state convention, delegates had three fairly distinct choices for governor: state Sen. Becky Lourey, whose progressive platform and populist rhetoric placed her just to the right of the Greens; moderate state Sen. Steve Kelley, the darling of suburban voters; and Attorney General Mike Hatch, the enigmatic bulldog lawyer who’s made his name tackling big corporations in the name of consumers. After a hard-fought battle, the party chose Hatch.
The decision says something about the party’s determination to recapture the governor’s office, a post the DFL has not won since 1986. Hatch is a proven statewide vote-getter, with excellent name recognition, and a reputation as a tough campaigner. Delegates clearly believe he has the best chance to beat Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
So why is Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson smiling so broadly today? Because a Hatch-Pawlenty match-up gives the former state finance commissioner the best opportunity to beat the odds and win the governor’s race in November.
Hutchinson, who is already polling at about 10 percent statewide (Jesse Ventura was garnering about 1 percent at this point in his 1998 campaign), sees a bitter and brutal campaign looming between Hatch and Pawlenty, who are barely civil to one another in the Capitol’s hallways. And the louder and nastier the campaign, the more Hutchinson’s call for common-sense government will resonate with voters.
That’s the theory, at least. A Kelley endorsement would’ve forced the debate toward the middle and kept it focused on issues, rather than personalities. A Lourey endorsement would’ve provoked little debate at all, frankly, as Pawlenty would’ve simply dismissed the left-leaning senator as too far out of the mainstream and concentrated his efforts against the more centrist Hutchinson.
With the formidable Hatch blazing away with both barrels, the governor will have to return fire early and often. And he will blast away at the attorney general’s “anti-business” record. Moderate Republicans, who are queasy about Pawlenty’s unwillingness to invest in infrastructure and education and uncomfortable with his anti-conservative positions on such issues as the death penalty and gay marriage, could be looking elsewhere come November. Hatch is not a viable candidate for these voters, but Hutchinson’s message of fiscal responsibility and social tolerance could attract some of these disaffected GOPers.
Given their determination to unseat Pawlenty, DFLers may be less inclined to cast their votes with Hutchinson, but the centrists who account for a good segment of the Kelley camp, could see the Independence Party candidate as a viable alternative to Hatch or Pawlenty.
This is all pure conjecture, of course. DFLers could unite completely behind their candidate in an all-out effort to unseat what most believe to be the worst governor in recent memory. And moderate Republicans could simply sit this one out–since the party’s choices from the top of the ballot to the bottom (Pawlenty and Mark Kennedy, along with Mary Kiffmeyer, Pat (Awada) Anderson, Michelle Bachmann, Rod Grams, John Kline, and Gil Gutknecht) may rank as the most radical collection of right-wing candidates in the history of the state.
Given the presence of Hutchinson in the race, though, it’s more likely that those old-line conservatives are going to be looking elsewhere–as will centrist Democrats. Will that be enough to throw the election to the Independent? It’s way too early to tell. What we do know is that the grudge match DFLers chose this past weekend may not work out quite the way they’d hoped.