A Centrist is Born
If you want to know how to lose the battle while positioning yourself to win the war in Minnesota gubernatorial politics this year, consider Mike Hatch's bob-and-weave response to a question about transportation funding during a debate with incumbent Tim Pawlenty and Independence Party challenger Peter Hutchinson on September 27. Hutchinson had correctly castigated Pawlenty for "stealing" from MnDoT's budget for roads maintenance in order to fund new construction projects, for proposing to borrow billions of dollars more as a means to finance other projects that are currently stymied for lack of funding, and vetoing a gasoline tax passed by both the DFL Senate and the Republican House last year.
"Pass it again, and I'll sign it," Hutchinson concluded.
Hatch was hardly as forthcoming. He said the transportation issue had divided rural and urban Minnesotans; that Pawlenty had taken money from the Met Council and the "rural highway account," and that two-thirds of the deaths and highway accidents in Minnesota occur on rural roadways. "We need to build trust before addressing the revenue side," he claimed. To which Hutchinson later rejoined, "Mike Hatch wants to build trust but doesn't trust us enough to tell us where the money comes from."
Throughout that exchange—a 15-minute period witnessed by a few thousand people and broadcast on the radio—Hatch seemed foolish. But in the bigger picture of the governor's race, Hatch may end up looking the savviest of all. In essence, it defined Hatch's campaign: Avoid being pigeonholed, don't utter a word about taxes, and forget the liberal base of the DFL to target the moderates in the purple parts of the state. If Hatch took it on the chin in the debate, it was a small price to pay to avoid being painted as a tax-hungry politician in attack ads underwritten by Pawlenty's massive war chest.
It's been 22 years since Walter Mondale was famously trounced by Ronald Reagan after telling Americans he would raise their taxes. Ever since that time, Republicans have consistently seized upon the stereotype of Democrats as big spenders to consolidate power—even as government spending under their leadership has continued to climb at federal, state, and local levels. Hatch understands the dynamic. "When it comes to raising revenue, the public is very cynical about the process," he tells City Pages, adding that he "knew going into this that [Pawlenty] would attack me on raising taxes." "So if you say you're going to increase a tax or a fee they say, 'Holy cow, that guy is really going to do it to us bad.'"
Rather than waste time condoning or condemning the cynicism, Hatch concentrates on finessing it. A significant reason why he has surprised most pundits by remaining in a dead heat with the affable, popular incumbent is because he has aggressively and successfully refused to be pigeonholed by the tax issue.
Not that Pawlenty hasn't strained mightily to define Hatch as yet another big spender. Having never been a legislator, the attorney general can rightfully claim that he's never raised anybody's taxes. But Pawlenty's two latest television ads twist his statements to magnify the impression that he will heavily tax Minnesotans.
The first, in which Pawlenty says Hatch would have imposed 13 new taxes, was derived from Hatch saying he preferred Jesse Ventura's budget proposals back in 2002 to the ones Pawlenty was proposing. The ad assumes Hatch would have adopted Ventura's budget whole-cloth were he governor. The second ad features a Republican functionary masquerading as an independent auditor who looks at 15 policy proposals favored by Hatch. The "accountant" comes up with the specific but specious claim that Hatch is proposing a $2,912 tax hike on every household in the state.
Normally, these sorts of ads might be allowed to go uncontested for weeks. But within three days, Hatch's campaign aired a response ad that pointed out that Hatch would cut health care costs and roll back college tuition by closing a corporate tax loophole, and, in words emblazoned across the screen, "Not raising taxes." A day later, Hatch issued a multi-page press release showing that, even after adjustments for inflation, Pawlenty's increased fees, tuition hikes, state taxes, plus the rise in local property taxes used to offset Pawlenty's cuts, averaged out to $2,981 per Minnesota household over the last four years. It was a rather nifty turning of the tables without Hatch stating where he stood on the tax "issue."
"Right now Hatch is running what I would describe as a nearly perfect campaign," says Blois Olson, the Democratic co-publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "Everyone thought he would implode or be negatively defined by the Republicans, and neither one has happened. The tax thing hasn't gained traction for a couple of reasons. First, the governor hasn't said he won't raise taxes—he signed the pledge before, why not now?—so Hatch doesn't have to say it either.
"Second, Mike Hatch is a political machine. He's worked with the same ad guy for 16 years, a guy who knows him and doesn't try to make him into somebody other than who he is. He put up that response to Pawlenty's accountant ad more quickly than any Minnesota Democrat I've seen in the past 15 years. And he's saved his money to be competitive late in the race."
Olson also notes that for the first time in 12 years, Minnesota has an incumbent governor standing for reelection, changing the dynamic in a way that hurts the Independence Party candidate. "This election is a referendum of Tim Pawlenty's job performance, and that has united Democrats," Olson claims. "This isn't about a protest vote, this is about getting rid of Pawlenty."
Olson's Republican co-publisher of PIM, Sarah Janecek, counters that her party always thought the race would be close, in part because Pawlenty had to handle three budget deficits without raising taxes during his four-year term and wasn't able to dole out dollars for projects. "I think they are both running the race they want to run. If push comes to shove and people are going to vote 'no tax' issues, it's hard to believe they won't think that Tim Pawlenty is a better pick," she says. And she flatly disagrees with Olson on Hatch's counterattack. "I think it's a great sign of weakness for a candidate to run an ad responding to another candidate, and Hatch recently did that with the accounting ad."
But Janecek does concede that Hatch has been a better candidate than the past two failed DFL nominees for governor. "Both [Skip] Humphrey and [Roger] Moe ran with this aura where it was like they were saying they had been around a long time and deserved to win. Hatch is out there working hard, and there is not the entitlement factor."
In particular, Hatch has had a laserlike focus on courting middle class voters who went for Independence Party candidates Ventura and Tim Penny is the last two elections. As silly as his answer to the transportation question might have been, Hatch at least sought the dividend of reminding rural voters he's not a big-city liberal who has forgotten about their concerns, a point reinforced in his first televison ad, which had him cavorting with a hunting dog while clad in an orange vest.
So moderation is key for Hatch, according to observers and by his campaign's own lights. The question, of course, is whether there is enough anti-Pawlenty sentiment out there among the centrists for the election to tilt Hatch's way. Some internal polls are showing Hatch gaining ground, and a public poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports showed Hatch having an edge for the first time, with 50 percent to Pawlenty's 46.
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