Steve and Sharon: The AG Primary Surprises

Of all the weird curves primary voters could have thrown last night, the respective Republican and DFL races for Attorney General top the list. Who would have predicted that perennial candidate Sharon Anderson would score a higher percentage of her party's votes on the Republican side than DFL endorsee Steve Kelley did with the Dems?

First the Republicans. Anderson is a candidate for whom the words "gadfly" and "eccentric" are charitable, yet she polled 42 percent of vote against Jeff Johnson, the endorsed candidate trumpeted by Republicans as the one who will break the DFL's 35-year stranglehold on the AG's office. At the very least, this shows that even those politically empathetic and motivated enough to get out and vote in a Republican primary don't even know Johnson. And that's the positive spin for Johnson on these results.

On the DFL side, Lori Swanson's surprising triumph is a resounding endorsement for the job performance of Mike Hatch as attorney general, and bodes well for Hatch's ability to rally the DFL party in November. It's no secret that Hatch has alienated some party members in the past by not abiding by their endorsement, by breaking up the patronage network established by his AG predecessor, Skip Humphrey, and by his abrasive temperament. That brusque style and Hatch's former ambivilance on the abortion issue in the early 90s has cost him support particularly among DFL women. That history makes the results of primary night especially significant, and positive, for Hatch's current gubernatorial campaign against Tim Pawlenty.

First of all, Hatch easily dispatched of a popular female opponent, State Sen. Becky Lourey, in his own primary race, without offering anything but praise for Lourey's character and commitment to the process. Second, after stating that he wouldn't confer his endorsement on any DFL candidate seeking to succeed him as AG, Hatch belatedly came out in support of Swanson, the solicitor general who has helped him tackle some of the high-profile investigations against HMOs and other health care operators. Swanson herself made health care and her association with Hatch the dominant themes of her campaign. Her ability to defeat two opponents who had vastly more political experience and name recognition consequently reflects well on Hatch.

Why did Kelley fare so poorly? It wasn't his leadership role in securing a new stadium for the Twins--he actually outpolled Swanson in Hennepin County, where the stadium sales tax will be levied. Part of it has to do with the fact that Kelley and former Congressman Bill Luther were both male, and both easily designated as "career politicians," putting Swanson in the enviable position of being both the outsider and the most experienced at the nuts-and-bolts tasks and background knowledge required of an attorney general.

One never got the sense that Luther was a serious candidate--he took a stab when Matt Entenza abruptly withdrew from the race, and made a half-hearted effort once his candidacy didn't immediately catch fire. By contrast, Kelley worked hard to convey the impression of inevitability regarding his primary election. He lobbied hard for his party's endorsement, then lined up as many big names and official labor and activist organizations as he could. And it was an impressive list. But there was also something cynical about Kelley's bid for attorney general. After running a passionate, spirited campaign for governor only months before, it was hard to believe he regarded the job as anything more than a consolation prize, especially when compared with Swanson, who has spent years in the trenches doing the grunt work that helped establish Hatch's reputation as a populist bulldog. Coupled with his other unsuccessful bids for statewide office in recent years, Kelley took on a scant but still deadly odor of someone who was simply willing to take on anything that would advance his political career. It's too bad it came to that, because he is an honorable man and one of the state's most intelligent and adept policymakers in the field of education. That the AG's office has hardly anything to do with education indicates how far Kelley strayed.

Now it comes to November, with the neophyte Swanson versus the unknown Johnson, and a former Perpich cabinet member, John James, of the Independence Party, also deserving to be in the mix. The winner? The most obvious answer is Mike Hatch.

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