Minnesota Senate Race Taking Shape

Posted February 15, 2005 at 6:05pm

A week after Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) abruptly took himself out of the 2006 Senate race, Republicans already have a frontrunner to replace him while the Democratic picture is considerably less clear.

Several potential Democratic candidates have declined the race, while others continue to eye it.

To no one’s surprise Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) formally declared his candidacy Friday, upping his timetable to adjust to Dayton’s news, though he had planned to challenge the freshman Senator regardless.

Several high-profile Gopher State Democrats have taken themselves out of the running, including the former vice president and 2002 Senate nominee, Walter Mondale; state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, a former football star; Buck Humphrey, grandson of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey; state Attorney General Mike Hatch; and comedian-turned-radio talk show host Al Franken.

Barry Casselman, who writes a weekly column in The Washington Times and specializes in Midwestern politics, said Democratic candidates are not under the same time crunch as Kennedy.

“The only rush was for Kennedy — he needed to formally declare to keep out other [Republican] candidates,” he said.

Since Dayton caught most Democrats off guard, it is natural that they will take longer to decide to enter the race, Casselman said. No Democrat is expected to be able to clear the field, so there is no real advantage to being first out of the gate.

Wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi, a possible contender whom others are watching closely, says he will not be rushed into a decision.

Ciresi, who lost the Democratic primary to Dayton in 2000, says he hopes to decide in March but no later than early April.

“Whoever’s going to get in is going to get in,” he said about other Democrats. “It wasn’t a factor last time I made the decision and won’t be this time. I obviously have a deep interest in the Senate and if I think it’s the right time and as long as the family is willing,” he will run again.

Ciresi and Dayton waged an expensive primary campaign in 2000 with Dayton eventually besting Ciresi and several others. Ciresi came in second.

Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar (D) is not expected to wait nearly that long.

The chief prosecutor for the state’s largest county, which includes about 20 percent of Minnesota’s population, is expected to jump in soon.

Democrats think she could be a strong candidate. In her first race in 1998, Klobuchar defeated Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, a former judge and prosecutor who is the sister of Rep. Jim Ramstad (R).

Party leaders are also awaiting a decision from child safety advocate Patty Wetterling.

Wetterling proved to be serious competition for Kennedy last year as she challenged him in the suburban and exurban 6th district and forced him to spend almost $2.3 million to win re-election.

She is expected to announce as early as Monday whether she will seek the Democratic nomination for the Senate or the 6th district or whether she will opt not to run for anything.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D) is also eyeing the race, though she has not set out a timetable for making a decision.

Casselman said a newcomer to watch is Mark Rotenberg, the general counsel for the University of Minnesota.

“He’s the sleeper in the race,” Casselman said. “He’s the bright new face that is so rare in the Minnesota [Democratic] Party.”

Rotenberg, who headed up the failed 2004 presidential efforts of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in Minnesota, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he believes he could raise enough money to wage a serious challenge.

State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Erlandson, who will leave that post in May, is also thinking of running.

“Yes, I’m taking a look at it,” said Erlandson, who also serves as chief of staff to Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.). “The question is, can you beat Mark Kennedy?”

Erlandson said that if he believes the answer is “yes,” then he will probably run.

Other Democrats still eyeing the race include state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who was a close family friend of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.); 2000 Senate candidates Rebecca Yanisch and Jerry Janezich, the latter of whom won the party’s endorsement but fared poorly in the primary; and several others.

Despite Kennedy’s early entry, there are still other potential candidates on the Republican side. Former Sen. Rod Grams, who lost to Dayton in 2000, is trying to revitalize his political career, while Rep. Gil Gutknecht is rumored to be backing away from the race, though his spokesman denied that.

Gutknecht will make his decision by early March, according to spokesman Bryan Anderson.

Casselman said that Gutknecht would be a more viable candidate than Grams but that the point is moot as national Republicans are already lining up behind Kennedy.

“Rod Grams is a much less serious candidate this year than Gutknecht” would be, he said. “He has been out of office five years and he was beaten handily” by Dayton last time. “What would be the motivation to choose him over someone who’s been successful like Kennedy?”

Kennedy’s early announcement and securing of endorsements, such as the one Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) offered even before Kennedy formally entered the race, are signals that Republicans want to clear the field for him.

“Kennedy’s early moves … have scared people off,” Casselman said. “He is making a show of strength.”

Political observers and partisans still disagree about whether Dayton’s exit from the race is a boon or a bust for Democrats.

“With Dayton in the race, he was the most vulnerable of all the Democratic incumbents in the nation; however, he was an incumbent and that means something,” Casselman said. “The race would have been close with Dayton in it.”

Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argued that his party will fare better now.

“They’ve gone from an incumbent to no candidate whatsoever,” he said. “There’s been a flurry of names mentioned, but the only bit of news to come out of the Democratic side has been a publicity stunt from Al Franken and that is a bit embarrassing.”

Democrats say the GOP should rethink that logic, noting that with Dayton in the race Republicans had a target they could beat up for two years while now, Kennedy will become the target.

Erlandson said he hopes Democrats will rekindle the strategy they used to defeat Grams in 2000.

There was an active primary on the Democratic side but all involved spent their time and money softening up Grams, leaving the eventual primary winner unbruised and ready to deliver the knock-out punch, he said.

If Democrats do the same thing in 2006, Erlandson added, Kennedy could suffer the same fate.