Fade to Blue

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

For once, it's Republicans playing the post-election blame game

BLAMING THE WAR

Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and John Kline all escaped with their pro-administration/pro-war hides intact. But nearly every Republican operative and candidate said the war was the main issue Tuesday night, and many conceded for the first time that it was a political liability.

"I hate to sound like the mainstream media," KTLK-FM's Jason Lewis said, summarizing the reason for Mark Kennedy's loss, "but I gotta say I think it's the war, primarily."

"The War on Terror is unpopular," opined soon-to-be-former House speaker Steve Sviggum. "But I believe we're still the party that will keep America safe."

Sen. Norm Coleman, who just four years ago was looking like one of Bush's bag boys, was less resolute, noting that "people are troubled about Iraq, and I think people are troubled about the president." And it cost the GOP at least one Senate seat. "Mark Kennedy had no chance," according to Coleman, because "he couldn't get away from [the war]. He didn't get away from it." This sentiment was echoed by GOP Chair Ron Carey, who said late on election night, "Mark played the war wrong.

"In an anti-Republican year, it looks like they broke heavily for the Democrats because they're voting anti-Republican," Carey said. "They weren't saying no to Mary Kiffmeyer, Jeff Johnson, or Pat Anderson, they were saying no to George Bush. The races like that were nationalized."

"I think we were victims, essentially, of a huge punishment of or a negative vote against Republicans in general, because of what's happening at the federal level, clearly. And some of that is the war," said outgoing auditor Pat Anderson. "This election was national, and we all got dragged through it." (Anderson)

BLAMING THE MESSAGE

The first clue that something was amiss in state GOP ranks this year came in the form of an upstart Republican candidacy for governor. Sue Jeffers, a tavern owner in Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota campus, railed against Tim Pawlenty all summer long for betraying his fiscally conservative principles through measures such as his tobacco "user's fee" and his signature on a Twins ballpark bill that relied heavily on public subsidies. The war may have turned away a good number of independent and undecided voters, and the Mark Foley scandal might have alienated some Christian elements. But the party's biggest liability might be the disgust fiscal conservatives—the true Republican base—have with increased government spending and a ballooning national deficit.

This became a hot topic on election night. Conservative talk-show host Jason Lewis summarized turmoil in the party thus: "You've got a GOP that's abandoned a lot of principles when it comes to fiscal issues." And Lewis noted that since the so-called "Republican Revolution" of 1994, the GOP has "turned from the party of principle to the party of self-preservation." Some of the backpedaling being done at the Republican election party at the Sheraton in Bloomington may have been a typical way of rationalizing a huge loss, but some of the self-flagellation is real.

Shortly after her own concession speech, for example, Pat Anderson was voicing strong dismay with her own party. "You've got one group of people who are upset about the war. You've got other people who are upset about a variety of issues from immigration to the deficit. You've even got fiscal conservatives like myself who are mad at the Feds because of the deficit issue," she offered. "There are people like myself who are sort of protesting all that's been going on in Washington in all these issues. And they decided, 'Hey, I'm tired of this, I'm voting and I'm going to send a message.'"

For Anderson, the message is clear: It's time for Republican leadership to rein in the spending and do some "soul searching," as she called it. "There's a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done, frankly, with this party," she noted. "We got spanked nationally and locally everywhere, and for good reason. We strayed from our viewpoints. It is not the Republican position to spend like drunken sailors and run up huge deficits. It's not the Republican position, and yet that's what's been occurring." (Anderson)

BLAMING THE MINNESOTA GOP'S PRIORITIES

For hardcore Republicans, the re-election of Gov. Tim Pawlenty would seem to be the silver lining to an otherwise demoralizing night. But not all the party faithful are taking solace in the governor's against-the-odds triumph. Among the fumers: Andy Aplikowski, chair of the Republican Senate District 51, fervent Mark Kennedy booster, and proprietor of the Residual Forces blog. In his postmortem analysis, Aplikowski called for the head of Republican State Party Chair Ron Carey, whom he blamed for failing to deliver support to any candidate other than Pawlenty:

"They put all of their energy into one race, and barely won it. Meanwhile, they let everything else go and it was up to the individual candidates. Sure we have the governor, but what good will that be? He's all alone now. There is no one left to even try to push him to the right. Because of the tunnel vision of putting all of the eggs in that one basket, they let them steal our entire henhouse."

Margaret Martin, wife of Taxpayers League President David Strom, echoed the sentiment in a comment thread attached to Aplikowski's post. She aims a little bile Pawlenty's way just for good measure:

"Pawlenty has done more to keep the base demoralized and disorganized than any governor, Republican or Democrat, in the last 10 years. At least there was no pretense with Arne. Why does [Pawlenty] do this? Because it benefits him politically. It's Machievellian. It works. He almost lost this time but since he didn't, it won't matter. Pawlenty sucked all the money and other resources of the election for Republicans." (Mosedale)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The GOP emerged from the election with a new rock star in its midst

Happy moments on Tuesday night were so few and far between for Republicans at the Bloomington Sheraton that revelers were reduced to gestures such as cheering for Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman to lift their spirits. And if Tim Pawlenty's comeback win crowned him as king at three o'clock Wednesday, the belle of the ball was unquestionably Sixth District Representative-elect Michele Bachmann.

Surely Patty Wetterling's disingenuous and timid campaign had something to do with Bachmann's decisive victory in the Sixth, but the fact of the matter is that, for all of the unflattering things that can be said about her—that she's a homophobe, a lock-step Bush soldier, a religious extremist, and an opponent of the separation of church and state—nobody is better at charming a crowd, or capitalizing on negative press, than Bachmann. And then there's the more intangible matter of personal charisma. On Tuesday night, she was simultaneously shielded and fawned over like no other local politician in recent memory. When she showed up at the Sheraton, it was almost as if Oprah had made an appearance—if Oprah were conservative, tiny, and white, that is.

Bachmann arrived in a stylish, sheer black dress and pearls, surrounded by handlers who carefully shepherded her to a very select group of media members to conduct interviews. She did brief, obligatory stints with print and television reporters, but mostly she made the rounds of the numerous conservative talk-radio hosts on the premises. Bachmann certainly knows who her audience is.

"We knew what was important to the people of the Sixth District," said Connie Slama, a Bachmann campaign staffer. "It was an excellent match with what was important to Michele Bachmann, and we just had to get her message out there." What was that message? "Cut taxes, build roads, and keep America safe," Slama said succinctly. When all was said and done, no one was better this campaign season at staying on-message than Bachmann.

When she had finished her appointed media rounds, Bachmann spent a good half-hour merely making her way out of the room, indulging group after group of admirers who approached her in a manner more often reserved for movie stars than politicians. She shook hands, accepted hugs, signed autographs, and posed for pictures. "She's so pretty," one female admirer cooed, "and so petite." (Anderson)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The pundits may have been mystified by Keith Ellison's appeal, but the voters were not

It's a good thing that most of the old-school DFL stalwarts were stalking the halls at St. Paul's Crowne Plaza Hotel—many would have choked on the heavy "Kumbaya" vibe in the air at Keith Ellison's downtown Minneapolis victory party. "You have to lay skin on people," Ellison said of his campaign that night. "You have to look them in the eye and tell them what you're about."

During the hour it took the erstwhile indigent defender and state representative to make his way from the back of the nightclub's ballroom to the main stage, he moved through a throng of people who amounted to a living tutorial on the candidate's appeal.

There was an effusive young woman wearing a black hijab decorated with metallic blue flowers standing with a subdued older man in a mustard-colored shirt, red tie, and navy blazer. To their left stood a Latino with an afro of gunmetal gray curls, a Fu Manchu, and John Lennon glasses. Behind them, a labor official who looked more like a beatnik surveyed the scene in black turtleneck and white goatee. An enormous coterie of photographers struggled to capture the scene; in additional to local newsies, they included a shooter from a German news agency, someone taking pictures for a union publication, and a camera crew shooting a documentary for Morgan Spurlock, the maker of SuperSize Me.

The revelers were forced to take turns peering between the photographers' knees to see updated vote tallies on a TV screen in the corner. At any given moment, the person with the best vantage called out the results for the rest of the clutch. Half an hour into the wait, the woman in the electric-blue hijab dropped a glass, which shattered. People shifted around her, trying to kick the pieces under the stage.

The labor guy disappeared in the shuffle and was replaced by a young African man wearing a long orange muffler and a huge grin. When the Senate race was called for Klobuchar, he pumped a fist in the air, chanting, "A-my, A-my," with a thick accent. "We've got to get them all out," he insisted. "Ritchie, he's good, we want him in there. Hatch, he's good." Beyond that, only isolated words of his running commentary were in English: Wayzata, Sixth, Ramstad. When Ellison finally appeared, the man vaulted onto the stage and squeezed in next to the candidate's wife, Kim Ellison, waving and cheering as if the victory were his.

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.

For the majority of Minnesotans who didn't vote for Pawlenty (he ended up with 46.7 percent), there is one bit of solace to be taken from his latest triumph: The fact that he survived the great Democratic tsunami of 2006—in a now blue state, no less—once again puts him on the short list of potential GOP vice-presidential candidates for 2008. In the end, that may be the only way anyone pries him out of the governor's mansion. (Mosedale)

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