Minnesotans will finally get to vote Tuesday in their first presidential primary in 28 years. Those going to the polls will first have to declare publicly their loyalty to either the Democrats or Republicans before being handed a ballot. That’s not so different than a precinct caucus except that the window to vote is open for 13 hours instead of 10 minutes.
While that will limit turnout since Independents may not want to be tagged with a DFL or GOP label, it’s state law at least for now. Never mind that half of the names on the DFL ballot have already quit the field or that Republicans won’t be able to check the box of anyone except Donald Trump.
For all its flaws, however, this primary is shaping up as a watershed moment for state politics, particularly for the DFL.
For Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, it is now or never time. After finishing fifth in Iowa, she received a bump up in New Hampshire, finishing a solid third. On Feb. 22, however, she fell back to fifth in Nevada, and the polls suggest she won’t do much better in the Saturday, Feb. 29, South Carolina primary.
Two recent polls in Minnesota show Klobuchar leading the Minnesota primary Democratic field, as she should, but only by about 6% over Bernie Sanders, with Elizabeth Warren trailing her by 14.5%. The race remains fluid because a fifth of DFLers have yet to make up their minds for whom to vote.
Let’s be clear about one thing. If Klobuchar doesn’t win in Minnesota, her campaign will be all but over. Not only that, if Sanders wins here, it means that the state party has been taken over by the socialists.
A few weeks ago, state Senate DFLers ousted their caucus leader, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the top outstate leader the DFL had in the Legislature. Bakk was pro-gun and pro-mining, two things that metro DFLers hate. I’ve known Bakk since I worked in Duluth 20 years ago; with 26 years of legislative experience, he is one of the savviest political operators at the capitol. He was replaced by state Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who was first elected in 2012.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minneapolis congressional Rep. Ilhan Omar have endorsed Sanders for president over Klobuchar. If Sanders wins Minnesota, the party may as well change its initials from “DFL” to “DML,” taking out the “F” for “Farmer,” and substituting “M” for “Metro.”
Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and chief of staff for President Obama, wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that many Democratic candidates may have misread the lessons of the 2016 election. Donald Trump beat a 17-candidate field by being the outsider.
Emanuel wrote that this year, Democrats such as Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Klobuchar have fared poorly when they have emphasized that they know how to get things done, suggesting that they are “insiders.” When Klobuchar talks about her grandfather working in the iron mines; her mom, the school teacher; and her dad, the newspaper columnist who had problems with alcohol, she fares better. Sanders has accomplished little in his long congressional career, but his followers don’t seem to care. He’s the outsider.
The New Hampshire finish provided Klobuchar with a surge in fundraising, but was it too little, too late? As of Jan. 31, every candidate still in the race other than Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had raised at least twice as much as Klobuchar.
While money is not the be-all and the end-all, it reveals more about how the candidates are doing than all the talking heads on all the TV news networks put together.
A look, in particular, at where independent political action committees — the so-called “smart money” — are placing their bets finds little interest in Klobuchar. The Federal Election Commission reports that no money has been spent either for or against Klobuchar by the independent PACs. That puts her in the same category as Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who trails her in the polls and early voting, and the self-funded billionaires, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.
However, all of her remaining competitors, Sanders, Biden, Warren and Pete Buttigieg have had independent expenditures both for and against their candidacies. That’s also the situation for the now defunct candidacies of Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Yang.
Another aspect of campaign finance is the mix of donors giving directly to campaigns. Among donors giving less than $200, Sanders is the overwhelming favorite among the Democrats. He has brought in $98.5 million in small donations. Next closest is Warren, who brought in $63.7 million. Klobuchar has brought in $16.4 million, less than all but Gabbard, Bloomberg and Steyer.
I continue to believe that Klobuchar is the most electable candidate remaining in the Democratic field, but the party appears to be excited more by Sanders’ extremism. That could have a big effect on the party’s down ballot races, or even on Klobuchar’s future. If she fails to be liberal enough for DFLers looking for a president, will she not fail to be sufficiently liberal when her Senate term ends in 2024? Unless she gets with the socialist program by then, she could be challenged from the left.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.