By Don Davis
Summer unofficially is in the history books, so it is Minnesota political season.
It is time when voters may turn more attention to campaigns leading up to the Nov. 4 election. There are local races that attract some, but most Minnesotans who care about such things will focus on the U.S. Senate and governor races.
And those key statewide races could be affected by congressional races being waged in northern and western Minnesota.
“It is huge, it is huge,” political scientist Larry Jacobs said of money being pumped into those races.
Jacobs said that money could influence the statewide races, as well as which party controls the Minnesota House.
Those U.S. House races’ impact also could go well beyond Minnesota politics. If Republican Mike McFadden upsets U.S. Sen. Al Franken, it could help swing the U.S. Senate to Republican control.
Jacobs, professor and Walter F. Mondale chair for political studies at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said that candidate-raised and outside money in the two U.S. House districts will help Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties increase turnout in critical, mostly rural parts of Minnesota. If voters turn out for one race, they generally vote up and down the ballot, so the party that attracts the most in a U.S. House race also benefits with more votes in other races.
Campaigns got into full gear in the last few days as the Minnesota State Fair attracted the statewide candidates.
For Democrats Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton, fair campaign stops are routine. Both said that instead of the need to campaign around the state, for the 12-day fair the state comes to them.
For newcomer McFadden and GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson, the fair gave them a chance to introduce themselves to thousands of people they otherwise may never meet.
All of the big four candidates were there most days of the fair. So were some Senate and governor third-party candidates, none of whom has gained much traction.
Jacobs said the two races are referendums, but for different things. “The governor’s race is a referendum on Minnesota and the Senate race is more of a referendum on Washington.”
The professor said things look good for Dayton because Minnesota “has one of the faster-growing economies.”
In the Senate race, however, President Barack Obama’s low popularity means Republican strategy of linking Franken with the president is wise and could hurt the incumbent.
For Dayton, after 39 years in government and politics, the State Fair was bittersweet: “This is the last time I’m here as a candidate for public office.”
For McFadden, surrounded by family volunteers, including his Texas mother-in-law, it was fun. He said he loved talking to the people. “Maybe it is because I’m Irish.”
Johnson used the fair to put an edge on his campaign, opening the event demanding more debates with Dayton. The governor stuck with the six he already proposed.
Of the four big names, Franken attracted the largest crowds. Wherever he went, he drew fair goers who talked about his work, both in the Senate and in his previous life as comic, satirist and writer.
Recent polls put Franken and Dayton up 8 to 9 points over their GOP challengers. Both sides are using the early numbers to seek donations, with leaders complaining that the race is close and they need money to stay ahead and those trailing arguing that more money would help them catch up.
But for all the begging for money in the Senate and governor contests, two U.S. House races could wind up making the difference.
In northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is in a fight with Republican upstart Stewart Mills, heir to Mills Fleet Farm money. It has attracted national notice in a district that has grown to the south, where Republicans are in control and threatening long-time Democratic district dominance (other than one term the GOP’s Chip Cravaack served).
“Both parties are putting lots of money into the 8th,” Jacobs said.
In the massive western Minnesota 7th Congressional District, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, is mounting the most serious challenge in years to Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who has served in Congress two dozen years.
Peterson remains a solid favorite in many observers’ eyes, but people in both parties say this could be Peterson’s last campaign and if Westrom does well he could be the front-runner two years from now in the normally Republican-leaning district. That could attract money this year to give Westrom a 2016 head start.
No one knows just how much money will be spent in the two House races, but it is obvious that if either is close, outside groups will throw millions of dollars at Minnesota.
At last report, the Nolan-Mills race had attracted $1.4 million in outside spending, and the real campaign usually does not start until after Labor Day. The Peterson-Westrom race outside spending was anemic in comparison, $245,000.
In the 8th, Mills has money behind him — from outside interests and his own bank account — but is untested and unknown.
“I’m still not clear what kind of candidate that Mills is,” Jacobs said. He could work out, but he “also could be a loose cannon.”
“I tend to be suspicious of people who are new to politics,” he said, adding that there is no substitute to having run a campaign.
Still, if Mills and Westrom show they can compete, money will follow and that money could influence politics beyond their districts