Paul Wellstone is a hunted man. Minnesota’s senior senator is not just another Democrat on White House political czar Karl Rove’s target list, in an election year when the Senate balance of power could be decided by the voters of a single state. Rather, getting rid of Wellstone is a passion for Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the special-interest lobbies that fund the most sophisticated political operation ever assembled by a presidential administration. “There are people in the White House who wake up in the morning thinking about how they will defeat Paul Wellstone,” a senior Republican aide confides. “This one is political and personal for them.”
That has made it political and personal for Wellstone. The man who decided to abandon a self-imposed two-term limit on his Senate service at least in part because of his determination to block Bush’s conservative agenda wears the target with pride. At a moment when most Democrats are still trying to figure out how to challenge a popular President, the former college wrestler is leaping into the ring. Wellstone is not running for cover; he is running to deliver a message about politics in a state and a nation that he believes to be far more progressive than the readers of political tea leaves in Washington could begin to imagine.
“This race is going to be a case study of whether you can maintain liberal, progressive positions and win in this country in 2002,” says Wellstone as he campaigns among Laotian immigrants on a sunny spring morning in St. Paul. “We’re not running a race that asks people to vote for me because, as a Democrat, I will be a little more compassionate, a little better for working families and children and immigrants, than a Republican. We want to draw the lines of distinction. I’m saying that there is a big difference between the America the conservatives want and the America I want.” He adds, “I don’t want this to be just about me. This race has to be about basic questions of whether liberals and progressives can flourish in national politics. That means there is a lot more on the line than whether Paul Wellstone wins or loses.”
Wellstone is right. His race is being read as a measure of the potency of progressive politics in America. If he wins, a blow will be struck not just against the Bush machine but against those in the Democratic Party who argue for tepid moderation. With Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt still struggling to identify the themes on which Democrats will stake their claim for control of Congress later this year, Wellstone is refreshingly different–he knows where he stands and he stands there proudly. For years, progressives have argued that Democrats will win big only when they distinguish themselves from Republicans on fundamental economic and social justice issues. Here is Wellstone–arguably the most prominent elected progressive in the country–doing just that.
Yet even as he follows the progressive playbook, Wellstone is no sure bet. In a state that gave America liberal Democratic icons like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, and that has not backed a Republican for President since 1972, current polls show Wellstone running roughly even with Republican challenger Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul. To be sure, Coleman has benefited from being “Bush’s best boy” and from steady infusions of campaign cash that are available to the Administration’s chosen ones. But the full explanation for Wellstone’s tight spot is found in a more complex calculation that involves Wellstone himself, the changing character of the upper Midwest, the flux in which the Democratic Party finds itself and the machinations of the people who manipulated Bush into the highest office in the land. “Sure, the Bush Administration is targeting Paul this year, but Paul is never a shoo-in,” says Myron Orfield, a Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) state senator widely regarded as one of the nation’s top experts in the study of voting patterns. “Paul’s a controversial guy. He’s the little guy who takes on the big guys. That is not something the political process is designed to reward these days. If you take strong stands you put yourself at risk–and Paul takes more strong stands on more issues than just about anyone else.”