Fade to Blue

Five or six things about last week's winners and losers

The crowd seemed to illustrate Ellison's proudly old-fashioned emphasis on coalition-building and reaching out to unlikely voters. Quaint though it might seem, the approach buoyed Ellison past a flurry of vicious attacks, from within his own party during the run-up to September's primary, and from Republicans after that—the worst of them attempts at political fragging. But while local media and the blogosphere were equating Ellison's Million Man March involvement with anti-Semitism and cracking wise about his unpaid parking tickets, Ellison stayed busy visiting synagogues, churches, student groups, and working-class advocacy organizations.

Ellison's Muslim faith was only part of his appeal to Somali voters, according to Abdisalam Adam, director of Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center in Minneapolis. More important, he said, Ellison made a point of courting the immigrant vote. "There was a lot of focus on his faith, but he never put much emphasis on that. Really, it was much more his emphasis on inclusiveness," said Adam. "In the new immigrant community, people were not readily convinced [voting] would make a difference. That personal contact made all the difference.

"His victory," Adam concluded, "is going to be huge in terms of encouraging people who say there's no place for them in the American political process." (Hawkins)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

There isn't much upside in "branding" a political party when no one really knows or cares much about its candidates

Sometime in the not too distant future, an intrepid bargain-hunter is going to come across an artifact labeled Team Minnesota at a yard sale. And, like most voters in the 2006 elections, he or she will probably have no idea what it means. This year Minnesota's Independence Party flubbed a lesson that is among the basic premises of Politics 101: Make sure people know the names of your candidates.

The Independence Party decided to effectively hide the identities of its candidates behind an incredibly generic brand name: Team Minnesota. To muddy matters further, they slapped a buffalo on the logo. "Third parties can either be cute or they can be compelling," notes Blois Olson, who helped run a fair share of campaigns before becoming co-publisher of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "The Independence Party clearly chose cute. The problem with branding is that normal people only think about politics for about two or three months every two years."

The Independence Party relished the fact that, in one informal survey, prospective voters liked the IP's policy positions better than those of the Democrats and Republicans. The salient question, however, was so what? Six weeks before the election, half the voters didn't even recognize the name of IP gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson, and only 10 percent professed a favorable opinion of him. Consequently, the party's vote totals for governor continue to plummet, from 773,713 (37 percent) in 1998, to 362,107 (16 percent) in 2002, to 141,737 (6.4 percent) this year. (Robson)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Teflon Tim just might be a national figure again

It's been said numerous times since last week, but it's hard to overstate how dramatically Tim Pawlenty's political prospects turned around as a result of his re-election on a night when voters overwhelmingly jettisoned every other Republican running for statewide office. You may remember the light buzz about Pawlenty's national political profile in 2005, when he briefly became a stylish dark horse for the VP slot on the 2008 GOP presidential ticket. (See "[*title]," CP, [*date].) That talk was abruptly shot to hell when Pawlenty angered anti-taxers with his tobacco "fee" hikes. Everyone agreed his shot at the national limelight was finished.

The most obvious explanation for Pawlenty's re-election—the E85-fueled, media- and ad-amplified shit storm that engulfed Mike Hatch and company in the waning days of the campaign—certainly has some merit. On its own, the E85 gaffe by DFL lieutenant governor candidate Judi Dutcher probably cost Hatch a few thousand votes in rural Minnesota, where a lot of hopes ride on the ethanol boom. Hatch's own subsequent handling of the incident—in which he allegedly referred to a Duluth News Tribune reporter as either a "Republican whore" or "Republican hack"—likely cost him a lot more, playing as it did into GOP efforts to paint Hatch as a mean-spirited hothead. A certain measure of blame can likewise be apportioned to the presence of Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson, whose 141,000 votes drew from likely DFL voters at twice the rate it pulled from Republicans, according to exit polls.

Even so, that's not a complete explanation for Pawlenty's against-all-odds victory. Other DFL candidates for statewide office had to contend with IP challengers as well. Yet most of them still managed to best their GOP rivals by 5- to 20-point margins.

All of which leads back to the most likely explanation for Tim Pawlenty's victory: Tim Pawlenty. The win is a testament to the governor's near-freakish capacity for remaining popular while pursuing unpopular policies. As governor, Pawlenty reduced education spending for the first time in modern Minnesota history, threw tens of thousands of people off health insurance, and slashed aid to local governments. And every step of the way, he retained his moderate, nice-guy image and the strong personal approval ratings to see him through tough times.

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