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Less than a week until Election Day arrives: Are you ready?

By Don Davis

Forum News Service

It has been a pretty fall with Minnesotans paying attention to Ebola and real-life experiences ranging from their kids’ sports to figuring out ways to afford life.

Other than complaining about a spate of negative campaign television commercials, signs are that they are not as tuned in to the Nov. 4 election as they could be.

“Generally, it has been a sleepy election,” Chairman Ken Martin of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said.

Voter attention often is tough to grab in elections when a president is not on the ballot, like happens this year. But there also have been relatively few political issues that have attracted much interest.

“I think national polling and other surveys would say that interest in this election is average and maybe even a little below average,” state Republican Chairman Keith Downey said. “I don’t know the cause of that for sure, but it seems to be No.1, there just aren’t any major, defining issues.”

Still, Minnesotans must pick state and local officials to lead government. And those who show up Nov. 4 will make that decision.

At the top of the ticket, Democratic incumbents have leads in polls. U.S. Sen. Al Franken is trying to fend off a challenge by Republican Mike McFadden and Gov. Mark Dayton is battling Republican Jeff Johnson.

While Downey said there are major issues like terrorism and health care, they do not seem to be taking hold across the country. In Minnesota, he added, the “all politics is local” cliche seems to be in force.

On the Iron Range, Downey said, voters are looking to who will best support mining. In the massive western Minnesota 7th Congressional District, “it is all about the ag community,” the chairman added.

In the inner cities, people want better performing schools, he said, while businesses everywhere search for ways to keep up with increasing costs.

Downey said the key to turnout this year may be races for the 134 state House seats, local elections that could draw more attention where there are tight races than top-of-the-ballot contests.

Martin, on the other hand, said the top races will drive turnout. While insiders see “a hotly contested race for the (House) majority,” he said, average voters probably are not noticing much difference from other years other than more legislative candidate mailers, radio commercials and cable television spots.

Representatives are elected every two years, while senators generally serve four years. If Dayton were to win his second term as governor, Republicans’ only hope of having much of a say in state government is to retake the House two years after they lost House and Senate majorities, giving Democrats full control of the Legislature and governor’s office.

The GOP needs to win a net of seven seats to take over the House.

The only statewide race without an incumbent is secretary of state, where Democrat Mark Ritchie is leaving after two four-year terms. Democratic candidate state Rep. Steve Simon faces Republican former Rep. Dan Severson in what has been a quiet race.

Two U .S. House races have not been so quiet.

Some polls have shown Republican upstart Stewart Mills leading Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in the 8th Congressional District, taking in northeast and east-central Minnesota.

In the massive western Minnesota 7th Congressional District, 24-year veteran Rep. Collin Peterson, a moderate Democrat, faces his toughest battle in years. Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom trails Peterson in the polls, but he attracted outside interests to work on his behalf after many observers thought the incumbent would retire.

Republicans face issues at the top of the ballot.

“Clearly, we have two incumbents with good name ID ... with massive war chests,” Downey said about Franken and Dayton.

His party is working its way out of financial problems, but is expected to have the strongest get-out-the-vote effort in some time.

Democrats, meanwhile, have brought in big names like Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to rally party members.

Democrats tend to be less faithful at turning out in years without a presidential contest, so DFL leaders are doing what they can to get people to the polls on Nov. 4, or before.

“The races will be close,” Martin predicted. “I am not worried about the Republicans. I think the real obstacle this year is Democrats. If Democrats stay home like they have in past midterm elections, we could lose some key races.”

In a fundraising email to Democrats, Martin wrote that money is needed to ensure a good voter turnout: “In 2010, without a presidential election to get out the vote, Minnesota saw a drop-off of 90,000 Democratic voters. If that happens again this year, WE COULD LOSE.”

For the first time this year, Minnesotans can legally vote before Election Day without an excuse such as they plan to be away from home. Political leaders said they do not know if that is bringing more people into the voting process or just allowing some people who would have voted on Nov. 4 to cast ballots early.

As almost always happens, political campaigns have overshadowed judicial ones. But two of Dayton’s Supreme Court appointees face opposition.

Justice Wilhelmina Wright is challenged by John Hancock, a recently retired agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Nebraska who said he planned to move to Brainerd.

Justice David Lillehaug faces Michelle MacDonald, who has gained occasional publicity for battles with the Republican Party, which endorsed her but whose leaders are not happy that she did not reveal that had been charged with drunken driving.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.