The 2014 elections are over in Minnesota and the results have many people scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened. For Republicans, the results were mixed, as Republicans won control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, but lost every statewide race in Minnesota.
I spent more time than originally planned to write this post, as I talked with many Republicans and Democrats about what happened in Minnesota.
Coming into Election Day, many politicos predicted Republicans would make sizable gains in legislative seats. The results announced late Tuesday evening giving Republicans a majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives brought sunshine to a very cloudy day for Minnesota Republicans.
A combination of people and groups contributed to Republicans winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Representative Pat Garofalo, Representative Denny McNamara and many caucus campaign staffers and volunteers. The Minnesota Action Network and the Minnesota Jobs Coalition also spent tremendous resources in target districts to ensure Republican candidates prevailed.
While winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives is no small accomplishment, Republicans expected more wins on Tuesday and the overall election results were devastating to the long-term viability of the Republican Party in Minnesota.
The election results are a complete repudiation of how Republicans in Minnesota are selecting candidates for statewide office and running campaigns.
Republicans missed so many opportunities to win elections on Tuesday. Not one Republican endorsed candidate for statewide office was elected and therefore, the endorsement process of the Republican Party of Minnesota is dead.
The current endorsement process benefits weak candidates, rather then promoting the stronger. An endorsed Republican candidate for statewide office has not won since 2006 and the next opportunity will not come until 2018. If Republicans do not make substantial changes, they will cement their placement as a permanent minority political party in Minnesota.
As I predicted weeks ago, Jeff Johnson lost his campaign for governor. In one of the most read posts in the history of politics.mn, I detailed the reasons I believed he would not win on Tuesday. As Johnson said in one of his final television ads, “the buck stops with me.” The ultimate responsibility for losing the race for governor falls to Johnson. Johnson was the weakest candidate Republicans could have endorsed for governor in 2014. Johnson was not prepared to be a candidate for governor, nor was he prepared to be elected governor. I’ll repeat it one more time: Johnson should not have run.
Governor Mark Dayton was announced the projected winner of the election within six minutes of the polls closing at 8PM on Tuesday night. The candidate who won in a recount election in 2010, won the election with over 50 percent of the vote, the first governor to achieve this accomplishment since Governor Arne Carlson in 1994 – 20 years ago. Dayton’s place in history will appear next to names like Humphrey, Freeman and Mondale.
In the closing weeks of the race for governor, the Republican Party of Minnesota and Jeff Johnson’s campaign attempted to smear Dayton with unfounded accusations about his health. Johnson, who tried to claim he was the “nice guy” running for governor, joined in on the school yard taunts, saying “I don’t think he is competent to be governor. I don’t think he has the capacity to handle such a big job.”
With their candidate for governor losing in the polls, Republicans released a television advertisement with the picture of a 4-year-old murdered boy and attempted to blame Dayton for the death. Many questions remain about who produced the advertisement, and the involvement of Johnson’s campaign in the production of the advertisement is very likely.
In the last 48 hours before the polls opened, Republicans then released radio and print advertisements which claimed Dayton was not ready to deal with Ebola. In the radio advertisement by the Republican Party of Minnesota, a woman said “I don’t want my family put at risk. And if Ebola comes here, I just can’t trust Dayton as governor.” Republicans ignored the fact that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had visited Minnesota weeks earlier to campaign for Johnson & Mike McFadden, later praised Dayton for his plan for dealing with the potential spread of Ebola.
Dayton’s response to being blamed for the death of a 4-year-old boy and for putting Minnesotans at risk to Ebola was very perfect – a textbook example of how to respond to cheap insults. I can think of numerous candidates and elected officials that would come unhinged if they were attacked in campaign advertisements like Dayton was in the final days of the campaign. Dayton offered a measured and very gubernatorial response.
Republicans completely miscalculated how to run a campaign against Dayton. As I said on the radio yesterday, Dayton is a brand in Minnesota and he is very well liked across the state. Dayton was a much stronger candidate for re-election than Republicans expected, but if they would have focused on policy instead of attacking him personally, they would have been more successful on Election Day.
After reviewing the election results, I do not think Republicans in Minnesota could have fielded a candidate with the organization needed to defeat Dayton. His campaign was very strong and Republicans never had a chance against him. The race for governor was over before it even started.
U.S. Senator Al Franken went from being elected by 312 votes in 2008 to winning with over 1 million votes – the only statewide candidate to reach this total. Franken’s campaign operation was a well-oiled machine and was brilliantly executed. The most recent fundraising totals show Franken raised over $20 million for his re-election and the campaign used the money very wisely. Mike McFadden’s campaign needed more resources to keep this race competitive, but he was the strongest of the Republican candidates who ran for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota.
If Republicans had endorsed any of the other candidates for the U.S. Senate, Franken’s campaign operation would have diminished any chance of Republicans winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Franken’s campaign strategy of initially ignoring McFadden was a bold move, which worked. But McFadden’s campaign kept Franken focused on Minnesota and if they would have given up like many Republican candidates seemed to do, Franken would have been helpful to Democrats across the country in their goal of keeping control of the U.S. Senate.
McFadden and his campaign kept working, up until the polls finally closed. In the closing weeks and days of the election, many Republican candidates were nearly invisible on the campaign trail. McFadden’s campaign was relentless in generating earned-media and McFadden offered the most detailed policy proposals of any Republican candidate running in Minnesota.
I was impressed by the decision from McFadden’s campaign to replay one of his debates with Franken. McFadden was the “scrappy fighter” for Republicans in Minnesota and the hard work of his campaign staff wasn’t reflected in the election results.
McFadden has a future in Minnesota politics and many candidates have lost campaigns, only to run for another office and win. I’ve learned more from the campaigns I worked on and lost, then from the campaigns that were victorious. I hope McFadden gives thought to running for statewide office again in 2018, because I believe he has tremendous potential.
For the Republican Party of Minnesota, they “really need to throw the playbook out.” A new playbook for Republicans must be written, but not by authors who oversaw the 2014 elections.
After the Primary Election in August, I wrote a post which said the results showed “clear warning signs for the Republicans in Minnesota.” Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey called the GOTV operations in 2014 unprecedented, but their efforts turned out less votes for Republican candidates than in 2010.
Republican candidates, staffers and party leaders who boasted about and implemented the GOTV efforts in 2014 either did not see the warning signs, or chose to ignore them. An overhaul of party operations is needed, as there was a wave election for Republicans across the country, but Democrats in Minnesota did a phenomenal job of building a dam to protect their candidates.
In the final days of the 2014 elections and while Downey was making phone calls with a little dog, Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin was holding numerous press conferences and traveling the state to boost the turnout for Democrats. The pictures to the left are symbolic of how the two party chairman viewed their roles this election cycle.
The Democrats simply out-worked the Republicans in Minnesota, including their party chairman.
Based on polling from the Republican Party of Minnesota, Dan Severson had the best opportunity to win on election night in his race to become the next Secretary of State from Minnesota. The poll showed Severson with a two-point lead over Representative Steve Simon, the DFL endorsed candidate for Secretary of State. But the leadership of the Republican Party of Minnesota withheld releasing the positive poll information about Severson because Johnson was down “double digits” to Dayton in the same poll.
Martin was active in the final week of the election and aggressively messaged against Severson. Downey did not realize the missed opportunity until election night, when he expressed regret to Severson’s campaign for not doing more to help Severson win.
Over the next days and weeks, Republicans need to rethink their entire approach to recruiting, selecting and endorsing candidates for statewide office and how the campaigns will be run. The Democrats had more wins on Election Day, because Republicans in Minnesota made it nearly impossible for them to lose.
As always, please check back to politics.mn for additional analysis on the 2014 election.
Balls & Strikes is a feature on politics.mn focused on examining the tactics and strategies of Minnesota politics, politicians and candidates.