Prioritizing the 2012 races

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There have been some recent posts on which races next year deserve our attention. Here’s a good one from Big E, and another from taxpayinglineral. It’s not too soon at all to have this discussion when we’re only four months away from precinct caucuses, but I wonder if we’re getting ahead of ourselves by going straight to a discussion of which districts should be priorities. Some assumptions are probably safe, but I’d like to step back and look at all the priorities competing for our attention.

This list is not in priority-order since we haven’t thought that through yet. I need some order though, so I’m of doing my best to remember what goes on a presidential year ballot, and ranking these from national to local:

  • President
  • Klobuchar Senate seat
  • Constitutional amendments
  • State Supreme Court
  • US House
  • State legislature
  • local races
  • Wisconsin governor recall

I lumped together all the congressional and legislative seats which isn’t where we need to end up, but that’s in order to step back and look at the whole picture before digging into which specific districts deserve the most attention.

What are the considerations at each level?

President: though I said these weren’t in priority order, I’ll go ahead and be inconsistent and put president at the top. We’ve been focused on the state legislature and some congressional seats ever since election night 2010, but president still seems obvious. The next president will probably pick two Supreme Court justices, probably replacing one liberal (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and the one conservative with might vote with the liberals once in a while (Anthony Kennedy). The court could flip to 5-4 liberal, or the conservative majority could become not only bigger, but firmly ideological. Imagine Antonin Scalia voting six times.

Though I think the court argument is plenty to put president at the top of our priorities, I also expect both houses of Congress to be Republican. If you liked the debt ceiling crisis, wait until there’s no Democratic president to at least make them work for it. And no Democratic president to make appointments, or exercise regulatory authority.

I understand the counter-argument, that Obama is likely to win Minnesota, and resources we put into re-electing him aren’t available for other races, especially districts outside the DFL strongholds. I too think Obama is likely to win, and if I must hazard a guess, which I must since we’re prioritizing, I’ll guess he wins Minnesota by seven. That’s not a comfortable lead. Looks like we won’t get a reprieve from the walk-and-chew-gum problem, which is probably a phrase I better explain to readers who haven’t been reading posts on this site for the last year. It refers to the DFL’s problem that it needs to sway swing voters and dig up infrequent voters in swing districts to win majorities, but it has to pump up the turnout in heavily DFL precincts to win statewide. We managed both in 2006 and 2008, but only managed the second task last year.

Senate: the case for making Sen. Klobuchar a priority is the difficulty Democrats will have holding the Senate. I earlier predicted a Republican majority, and that’s based on math. The Democrats have to defend 23 seats to the Republicans paltry 10. If Democrats win the Senate elections 19-14, which would be a pretty good election, they still lose the majority. That makes each seat important.

The counter argument is that Klobuchar is looking strong in the polls, and no credible opponent has appeared yet. The MNGOP needs to run someone, but major candidates probably would rather not risk what may be their one serious run in such a long-shot, especially if they assume Franken and Dayton will be more vulnerable just two years later. I’m supporting the counter-argument this time. It’s obviously important the Klobuchar wins, but she can win only once. It’s not like more resources for her affects other states.

Constitutional amendments: this is the one that’s the biggest thing we’re forgetting when thinking about what to focus on next year. It’s again the walk-and-chew-gum problem, since defeating them will probably need massive opposition from safe DFL precincts. It’s also an unknown since we don’t know what the legislative Republicans will put on the ballot. They already put on the anti-marriage amendment. Voter restrictions seem so near and dear to their hearts that I can’t see them not having an amendment, at least for photo ID requirements. They might have an amendment requiring a supermajority to pass a tax increase. We don’t know how many or just what we’ll face, or how the number of amendments will affect an attempt to defeat them. Since passage will mean restricting the rights of vulnerable people and handicapping the ability of state government to cope with whatever the future holds, there’s a case for making these our second priority after president. Retaking the legislature means a chance to repeal the amendments, but the repeals, being amendments themselves, would have the same high bar to get over, so we’re much better off beating the amendments’ passage in the first place.

State Supreme Court: think back to last year, when the Republicans endorsed judicial candidates, and seemed to choose as their criteria a high degree of theocratic religious conservatism. I see no reason to think they won’t try the same thing. The DFL doesn’t endorse judicial candidates and most judicial candidates chose not to see party endorsement, so in a way picking supreme court candidates is easy: look at the GOP endorsements and vote for the opponent. In terms of priorities, this is tough because putting an emphasis on these races means politicizing them, which we strongly prefer not to do. On the other hand, when the other side politicizes them, we don’t get the choice.

State Supreme Court justices tend not to stay for life like the US Supreme Court, and certainly the stakes aren’t as high. While we can hang on to the governorship we avoid dogmatic conservatives getting on by appointment. On the other hand, we can look over into Wisconsin and see the potential dysfunction when court seats get captured by ideological warriors disinterested in law. I’m really not sure where to prioritize these races.

US House: when I predicted the Republicans would keep the House, that wasn’t just pessimism. Voters tend not to turn out a majority in just one election. It has happened though, and the benefits of taking it back are pretty obvious. Even if the blue dogs again interfere with their own party’s priorities, at least Democrats would be setting the agenda and our frustration will be the inability to pass good legislation, not the inability to stop bad legislation. Besides, I also opined that the Senate will probably flip and Obama’s reelection is looking dicey.

The problem is the the unknowns, especially redistricting. Probably the court will think like it did ten years ago and make only modest adjustments to current districts, but they could do anything. So everyone’s plans get a big asterisk even without the other big unknown, who will run for reelection. Most incumbents who choose not to run will probably announce over the next six months. Open seats tend to be easier to win. Conventional wisdom (which I have a feeling is wrong) holds that incumbents are easiest to beat in their first reelection, and there are loads of GOP freshmen. That makes the House a tempting target.

Thinking long-term, as big a backlash as it was taken to be against Democrats that they lost their majority after just two terms, think of the effect on the current variety of conservatism if Republicans lost their majority right after losing it. So as a backup plan to the presidency if nothing else, the House needs to be a high priority, even before selecting specific districts to focus on.

State legislature: this is the one that’s been on our minds since losing both houses in the 2010 wave. We finally had a DFL governor, and all he could do was veto lousy legislation. On a gut level we want to take it back, and we could make Minnesota a model of effective government again. However, we have governor two more years. I don’t blow off the opportunity to take back the legislature, but I have to put it after taking at least one house of Congress.

A counter-argument is that much of the damage this year is coming from state legislatures. The US House clearly has the same intention to deny right to people who tend not to vote GOP as legislatures do, but the Senate and president are in the way. Legislatures are passing things. In Minnesota, they have the option of constitutional amendments to get around the gubernatorial veto. Another counter-argument is that if we have MNGOP majorities again in the 2013 session, we’re going to have another government shutdown. They’re unlikely to change their non-compromising natures in that time, especially if they feel vindicated after being reelected.

The main counter-argument is that redistricting means the Senate is up for reelection too, so we have an opportunity to flip both houses in a presidential year, when presumably turnout will be greater. If only the House was up, as would normally be the case, we would know we’d still have a MNGOP Senate, so not much would change.

The good news is many swing seats — under the current districts, which again will change in ways we don’t know — are located in what we think will be competitive US House seats, so the votes scrounged up for one race should help the other.

Though it’s presumably obvious, but just to be clear, whatever resources we devote to legislature and Congress, we then have to have another discussion about which districts to focus on. That though will have to very provisional pending redistricting and retirements.

Local races: few of us will have much idea about county board, cit council, etc. races outside our local areas. Making a case to put a local race above anything already mentioned is tough, but that doesn’t mean some local circumstance could make a local race move up in importance, like the role of former (!) Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher in the militarization of the RNC in 2008, or at least his attempts to stick his face in front of cameras and claim a large role, made that race a big deal last year.

Next year, my personal focus will be on the Soil and Water Conservation District race.

No, I’m not serious. Though maybe I should learn the candidates’ names prior to seeing them on the ballot this time. And learning what that board does might be good too I suppose.

Finally, what’s with putting the Wisconsin governor recall on the list of Minnesota priorities? My thinking is there probably will be a recall campaign, and if there is, Minnesotans of both parties will presumably be asked to help just like last year. The help we give is time and donations we can’t put into Minnesota races, so we do have to consider how important it is for us. A successful recall might be a bracing lesson for our own Republicans about the risks of taking away the rights of people they don’t like. A defeated recall might be a morale booster for them. If the recall happens, the effect of success or failure will be about the same whether Minnesota DFLers help or not, so we might as well help. I don’t know where to rank the recall as a priority, but I strongly suggest it be included in our planning instead of something extra thrown in that makes us suddenly revise plans.