Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s decision to not seek a third term means that next year’s gubernatorial contest will be a wild, wide-open affair. The candidate pile-up on both sides of the aisle is well into double digits. The Independence Party is also vowing to run a credible challenger, while the Green Party already has at least two contenders.
Politics in Minnesota’s matrix of gubernatorial hopefuls currently includes 36 potential candidates. Here’s a thumbnail analysis of the current Democratic field. Next Monday: the Republican contenders.
Definitely in: Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, state Sens. John Marty and Tom Bakk, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza.
Gaertner (left) and Marty will likely face the toughest odds. The former has law-and-order bona fides that could prove useful in a general election but won’t carry much cachet with the DFL base. Her prosecution of the so-called RNC Eight, in particular, has caused consternation among the rank-and-file Democrats who will determine which candidate gets the party’s official backing. Could Gaertner bolt for the Independence Party?
By contrast, Marty is arguably the most liberal contender in the field, leading the fight on legalizing gay marriage, for instance, which should play well with DFL loyalists. But he faces another significant hurdle: the stench of loserdom still clinging to him from the 1994 gubernatorial contest, when he was pummeled by a 63 to 34 percent margin.
Entenza (left) and Dayton are certain to be factors for one simple reason: money. Dayton has his family fortune to squander. Entenza comes from more humble origins but has his wife’s considerable wealth (amassed as a health-care executive) at his disposal. Both have the ability to bypass the DFL endorsement and run in a primary. But significant questions persist about both: Has Entenza escaped the cloud under which he departed the Attorney General’s race in 2006? Did Dayton’s U.S. Senate tenure damage his reputation, particularly the bizarre decision to close his Washington office due to terrorism concerns?
Bakk is the wild card of the currently declared crop of contenders. He’s the only non-metro candidate and will garner significant support in the DFL stronghold of the Iron Range. Bakk’s also got significant support in labor circles, benefiting from his three decades as a union carpenter. The chair of the Senate Taxes Committee emerged as perhaps the strongest voice calling for tax increases during the recently completed legislative session. This stance would set up a stark contrast to whoever emerges from the GOP field.
Almost certainly in: Rep. Paul Thissen, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, former Sen. Steve Kelley and Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson.
Thissen has had an exploratory committee up and running since last year. He’ll battle a lack of name recognition (the average voter doesn’t even know how to pronounce Thissen — it’s Tee-san), but turned heads by raising roughly $125,000 in just the last two months of 2008.
Kelliher has all but declared her candidacy in recent weeks. The Minneapolis legislator emerged from the 2008 session as the level-headed face of the DFL leadership. Her ability to joust with Gov. Pawlenty without resorting to sandbox-style insults won plaudits from political observers. But the 2009 session may have taken some bloom off her rose. It’s widely believed that Pawlenty out-maneuvered the DFL leadership by opting to solve the state’s $2.7 billion deficit on his own, leaving Democrats to shout from the sidelines.
Coleman (left) and Rybak face the same dilemma: They must run for re-election this year while (not-so-quietly) plotting a gubernatorial run for 2010. This means they must at least pay lip service to serving out their full four-year terms without being completely disingenuous. Hence statements like this from Rybak’s communications director, Jeremy Hanson: “Right now he’s focused on this election and doing the job he loves.”
While such political two-step could prove difficult, both mayors have benefited from the fact that they’ve not attracted serious opposition in their re-election efforts. This allows them to build a campaign structure for 2010 while continuing to profess interest only in retaining their current posts.
Kelley has long sought statewide political office only to come up short — a history that may dog him in this contest. He lost out to former Attorney General Mike Hatch in seeking the DFL gubernatorial endorsement in 2006. Kelley then turned around and ran for attorney general but was defeated by fellow Democrat Lori Swanson in the primary. He also failed in his bid to gain party backing for the 2000 U.S. Senate contest.
Doug Peterson’s viability is difficult to gauge at this point. He brings a formidable resume: more than a decade as a state legislator and currently serving as president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. But after a half-dozen years largely out of the political spotlight, he might find it difficult to break through the mass of better-known contenders.
Peterson sounds serious about running. “I think everybody has kind of benchmarks as to how they’re accepted,” he says of the emerging field. “Frankly it’s wide open and it’s very early.”
In the ether: Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, state Reps. Tom Rukavina and Joe Atkins, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
Along with Kelliher, Clark emerged during the 2008 session as the composed face of the DFL leadership. Did she lose any of that luster during the just-completed session? She’s also been frequently touted as a possible challenger to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2010.
Rukavina (left) and Atkins would both be long-shots. The former is an Iron Range populist who frequently chafed at the DFL leadership’s reticence to raise the specter of tax increases during the 2009 session. The latter has displayed a genius for getting his name in the newspaper and is thought to harbor statewide ambitions but was largely absent from the debate during the recently completed session.
Walz has publicly declared that he’s not running, but some political observers harbor suspicions that he’s still eyeing the race. The Mankato Democrat, who emerged as a political rock star during the 2006 election cycle, would immediately leap to the top of the pack if he reverses course and gets in the race.
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