Winning the Ground Game

Tony Nelson for City Pages

Iraq may have been the first and last word on national races for the U.S. House and Senate, but it doesn't go far in explaining why DFLers won big on the state level too. As gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch, one of the party's few election-night losers in major statewide races, noted during his concession speech, Iraq came up exactly once in his days and nights on the campaign trail. Compared to their brethren in Washington, D.C., local legislators were squeaky-clean on the ethics front. And polls taken around Election Day showed that a clear majority of Minnesota voters think that the state's economy is in good shape. So why did this voter tsunami carry so many new DFL legislators into office in St. Paul as well as Washington a week ago Tuesday? "Coattails" is no doubt part of the answer, but a top-notch grassroots organization led by members of the DFL's progressive wing likewise played a crucial role.

The linchpin of the vastly improved DFL ground game this year was an organization known as TakeAction Minnesota, which arose from last January's merger between the 12-year-old Progressive Minnesota (PM) and the 18-year-old Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action (MAPA). Generally speaking, Progressive Minnesota had consisted of a cadre of dedicated activists who did the sweat-equity work of staffing phone banks and canvassing neighborhoods. By contrast, MAPA's clout stemmed more from bringing together like-minded organizations (many of them labor unions) to lobby at the Legislature on long-range issues.

Under the guidance of Executive Director Dan McGrath (who held the same position with PM), TakeAction Minnesota developed an ambitious electoral strategy over the spring and summer of 2006. First, they identified all the state House and Senate districts where incumbents had won by fewer than a thousand votes in the previous election. Nearly all of them, it turned out, were in the suburbs. Then they matched those districts up with the positions of prospective candidates on basic issues such as health care and education. Out of that candidate/district matching process, they targeted 15 races for last week's election. Along the way they hired and trained a dozen canvassers armed with palm pilots to go door-to-door identifying and persuading sympathetic swing voters and updating voting lists.

In response, Republicans drew a suburban line in the sand, setting up a series of "victory offices" in communities around the perimeter of the metro. In remarks celebrating the opening of the Plymouth office, Republican Party Chair Ron Carey boasted that suburban DFL legislators were merely "renting" their seats and declared the western metro to be "ground zero" in the Republican fight to retain its slim two-vote majority in the House. Longtime Republican activist and former Center for the American Experiment CEO Annette Meeks sounded a similar note to the Star Tribune, claiming that TakeAction Minnesota would "find that it's a lot more difficult to organize outside your existing base, which is the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul and some college campuses."

Meeks had it exactly wrong. TakeAction canvassers were finding the targeted districts to be especially fertile ground for their endorsed candidates. "Our goal was to hit 100,000 doors and have face-to-face conversations with at least 27,000 people in those competitive districts, which we have already done," McGrath said on the night before the election. "Now this isn't scientific by any means, and there are all sorts of reasons why some people probably wouldn't talk to us. But out of those 27,000 conversations we've had since the beginning of June, we've had only 142 come right out and tell us that stopping gay marriage is their number-one issue—and 81 others told us their top issue is allowing gay marriage. And we've had just 39 people tell us that stopping immigration is their number-one issue.

"We knock on their door, explain we are canvassing, and ask them what their top issue is. Up and down the economic ladder, far and away the leading issues are education and health care, in that order. Some of these areas are very conservative, but even so, taxes is no better than third. And so I think those with a hard-right, social extremist message are not running on things that are most important to most folks, and our candidates who are running on those bread-and-butter education and health care issues should get a great response."

As the calendar rolled to November, the TakeAction merger in general and McGrath in particular were crucial in coordinating a massive grassroots campaign that in previous years had been too duplicative and disorganized to make the best use of resources. Christened "America Votes," this get-out-the-vote effort mobilized labor, environmental, and social justice groups in a more focused, efficient manner than in previous elections, avoiding repetitious contacts of progressive households already in their camp. As more than 5,200 volunteers fanned out over the state on Election Day, McGrath was already confident enough to declare that four of the 15 targeted contests would definitely swing in TakeAction's favor, including those involving incumbent Maria Ruud and challenger John Benson in the western suburbs that GOP Chair Carey had dubbed "ground zero."

In the end, TakeAction triumphed in 14 of their 15 targeted elections, with a lone setback in House District 53B (White Bear Lake). Not a bad ratio for a voter drive that cost around $250,000, according to McGrath: That's about half as much as the larger "independent expenditures" some business groups ponied up for television attack ads on Hatch in the final week of the campaign.

"It is a validation of our philosophy and the work we did on the ground," McGrath contends. "People [in swing districts] are persuadable, but that still means they have to be persuaded into voting progressive. When we were able to talk to people face to face, they moved."

That said, McGrath denies that TakeAction is a de facto wing of the DFL Party. (Among their 55 endorsements this year was Julie Risser, the Green Party candidate from Senate District 41.) "We'd support any Green or Independent or Republican who would be most effective moving the issues that matter to our members. The candidates who won this year expressed those values, especially on education and health care."

The next step is translating those electoral gains into legislative policy. "We need to make sure our candidates don't govern scared. We'll remind them they were supported because people expect them to act on their number-one issues," McGrath says. "We place a priority on the grassroots because we can sustain the momentum better. It will be a very different ballgame in two years, when we have to defend some very vulnerable incumbents who won by narrow margins. One thing I can tell you that won't change: We will continue to go door to door and talk to people."

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