Matt Entenza just might win

Nobody told Matt Entenza that he couldn't win
Nick Vlcek

Except for the goofy grin on his face, Matt Entenza looks like a governor. Dressed in a dark suit and crisp blue shirt, he chuckles as television pundit Ed Schultz details Tom Emmer's gaffe.

"Get this: A Republican running for governor in Minnesota is so psycho he actually wants to lower the minimum wage for restaurant servers," Schultz says, his voice dripping with contempt.

Entenza is ready to pounce.

"Well, this guy is so incredibly radical, a few years ago he said the minimum wage was socialism and proposed abolishing it completely," he says. "When Republican leaders like Tom Emmer are saying that the solution is literally to lower the minimum wage or get rid of it completely, they know that they're being sucker-punched."

Lately, Entenza has been getting his mug out wherever he can. He has to—he's playing an aggressive game of catch-up in a three-way race where he is the least-known contender. Since May, he has spent more than $1.2 million on television ads, outstripping Mark Dayton's $750,000 and Margaret Anderson Kelliher's $60,000.

The strategy seems to be working: Entenza's numbers in the polls have risen dramatically. In early May, Entenza got just 6 percent of the primary vote; by June he had 22 percent of the likely vote, with 26 percent going to Kelliher and 39 percent to Dayton, according to the Survey USA poll.

"Mark Dayton's percentage is pretty well fixed, a ceiling and floor that's in the mid- to upper 30s," says Steve Schier, political scientist at Carleton College. "The real question is whether Entenza or Margaret Anderson Kelliher are able to gather enough support to catch Dayton."

Typically, primary voters are DFL party activists, senior citizens, or both. Normally, these voters favor the most liberal candidate, a position that Dayton has carved out for himself with his cries to tax the affluent.

What makes Entenza a viable candidate this time around is the specter of the DFL's past failure, says Larry Jacobs, political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The DFL hasn't won the governor's seat since Rudy Perpich lost to Arne Carlson in 1990, so there's a sense that even the activist wing might be making calculations about the general election.

"There's a lot of folks who are tired of losing," Jacobs says. "My hunch is that we're going to see the gloves come off a bit, and in the last few weeks of primary, Dayton's going to find himself under questions about whether he's electable."

Dayton may have the name recognition of being a past U.S. senator and heir to a department store fortune. But his record is mottled: Time named him one of the five worst U.S. senators, and he has exhibited some bizarre behavior. In 2004, he drew attention for closing his office because of unspecified potential terrorist attacks. Dayton has also acknowledged struggles with alcoholism and depression.

"I happen to think it's the whisper campaign about the state of his mental health," says Bill Hillsman, who designed ads for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. "It sounds about as politically incorrect as it can be, but it's out there."

In the primary, Kelliher's disadvantage is a lack of money, a problem that doesn't plague the dark horse.

"Entenza has a better chance because there's really no substitute for advertising in a low-interest election," Schier says.

But Entenza has ample baggage of his own, says David Schultz, of Hamline University. In 2006, Entenza dropped out of the attorney general's race after the media revealed that he'd done opposition research about candidates in his own party. It wasn't so much the dirt-digging as the fact that Entenza lied about doing it, then lied about how much he'd spent—$40,000.

Entenza's wife, Lois Quam, a smart businesswoman considered one of his greatest assets, is also something of a liability. Quam is former head of a major division of United Health Group, and the source of the millions that fund Entenza's campaign. So he's the beneficiary of our broken health care system. "My friends all want to say this is all dirty money," Schultz says.

With this year's primary moved up to August, political observers are expecting even lower turnout than usual. The winning candidate could need less than 200,000 votes—some estimates say the magic number could even be less than 100,000.

Entenza has been strategic about getting the numbers: He says that the addition of former Fox 9 anchor Robyne Robinson will help motivate African-American voters, and that the inclusion of hip-hop artists like Hieruspecs and Slug from Atmosphere will galvanize the young.

"In a general election, where there's mass turnout, it will be certainly be tougher to beat someone like Dayton, who's been running for office for 30 years," Entenza says. "But in this race, which is targeted, we've put our resources into targeting people who are actually going to vote—and making sure they know why they want to vote for Matt Entenza."

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