Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton has been projected by the Associated Press as the winner of the Democratic primary for governor of Minnesota, setting up an amazing comeback as he faces Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer in the race to succeed retiring GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But it’s not quite over yet — in a state that already had one high-profile recount in the last few years, Dayton has not declared victory, and his main opponent has not conceded.
With 98% of precincts reporting, Dayton has 41%, state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher 40% — a raw vote lead of only about 5,000 for Dayton — and former state House Dem Leader Matt Entenza 18%. Kelliher was the officially endorsed candidate of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention — an endorsement that should have traditionally given her the nomination with her opponents dropping out. But Dayton and Entenza fought it out in the primary, with each aided by his personal wealth.
The polls going into this primary gave Dayton a double-digit lead. However, Kelliher clearly benefited immensely from the state DFL’s get-out-the-vote machine, which is well organized for winning primaries for an endorsed candidate through the work of the state party and organized labor, and she swept through the Twin Cities area. However, Dayton had the endorsement of the steelworkers union, which delivered him a big margin in the Iron Range region up north, and he won other areas of the state as well.
As of late last night, Kelliher had not conceded, telling her supporters to wait for the final votes to come in. Dayton told his own supporters, “We’re definitely not declaring victory,” and also added: “I totally respect Speaker Kelliher wanting to wait until all of the votes are counted.”Dayton was elected to the Senate in 2000, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Rod Grams by 49%-43%. Over the course of his term, however, he became widely perceived as unpopular and ineffective. In February 2005 he announced his retirement. In an unusual move for politicians who retire as a result of bad poll numbers, Dayton actually admitted it: “Everything I’ve worked for and everything I believe in depends upon this Senate seat remaining in the Democratic caucus in 2007. I do not believe that I am the best candidate to lead the DFL Party to victory next year.”
Since then, however, Dayton has worked to repair his image. One unusual step he took was to discuss his struggles with depression and alcoholism with the media.
Emmer, meanwhile, has struggled with various stories. Last month, he called for changes to the state’s minimum wage laws for waiters, complaining that they were allegedly making over $100,000 in tips and hurting their employers. This was then followed by some comical attempts at damage control that probably did more damage than control, such as Emmer waiting tables and holding a disastrous town hall with servers that ended with a bag of pennies being thrown open on his table by a heckler. He has also faced attacks for his DWI history, and the CEO of the Target Corporation has now apologized for supporting a pro-Emmer business group, due to an outcry from liberal consumers over Emmer’s religious-right positions.
Going into the general election, the TPM Poll Average shows Dayton leading Emmer and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner, by a margin of 42.9%-32.4%-10.2%, thanks in part to Emmer’s much-reported gaffes and right-wing positions. Minnesota has not elected a Democratic governor since 1986, despite the state’s usual Dem leanings, but this year could potentially be different.
So this race ought to be fun. Minnesota is a wonderful state, full of polite and friendly people — and really crazy politics.