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Paul Wellstone, Fighter | The Nation

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Paul Wellstone, Fighter

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For many progressives, that still sounds like a recipe for electoral success. But this "Democratic" state has not elected a DFL governor since 1986, its Senate seats have switched partisan hands twice in twelve years and while Minnesota still backs Democrats for President, it does not do so by much. "This idea that Minnesota is an easy Democratic state is overblown," says Robert Richman, a veteran Democratic campaign aide. "Gore barely won the state in 2000"--prevailing over Bush by fewer than 60,000 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast. Minnesota Democrats note that when Green candidate Ralph Nader's 126,696 votes--5 percent of the total--are added to Gore's, the numbers look better. But Democrats didn't used to have to resort to such calculations in a state that swam against rougher Republican tides to back Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Some of the slippage has to do with signals sent by national Democrats. The 1990s saw the Democratic Party relying more on the upper Midwest than ever before for Congressional ballast, yet DC Democrats get low marks for addressing the region's traditional concerns. "This is the part of the country that has saved the Democratic Party in the Senate," says Neil Ritchie, a DFL precinct activist and one of the savviest analysts of farm-state voting patterns in the country. "But, when you've got Clinton, Gore and the Democratic Leadership Council promoting free trade and helping corporate agribusiness, it makes it hard for Democrats out here." Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota have ten Senate seats, nine held by Democrats who, for the most part, preach a farm-and-factory populism with which the technocratic Al Gore was never comfortable. Eight years of Clinton/Gore centrism sucked a lot of air out of the "us against them" populist rhetoric that was long the currency of Democrats in the region. That's a big part of why Bush beat Gore by an overall margin of more than 80,000 votes in these states, and why the shift of relative handfuls of votes would have given Bush an additional twenty-eight electoral votes--making the Florida recount fight irrelevant.

Now, Rove is gambling presidential prestige and Republican dollars on the prospect that the upper Midwest is the key to taking back a Senate that went Democratic last spring after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords exited the GOP. "Midwestern voters don't feel the connection with the Democrats that they once did," crows Rove. To that end, Wellstone, South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Iowa's Tom Harkin, all up for re-election, are getting what GOP insiders call "the Rove treatment": recruitment of high-profile Republican challengers, major-league fundraising assistance and regular presidential visits. All other things being equal, picking off either Johnson or Harkin would be enough to split the Senate 50-50 and again allow Vice President Cheney to break partisan ties. But beating Wellstone would be the sweetest win. "They have made it very clear that if they could beat one Democrat this year, it would be Paul Wellstone," says Minnesota political consultant Richman. "Paul gets under their skin."

"When I first met the President, he called me 'Pablo,'" Wellstone jokes. "That lasted a day or two. Then they started trying to figure out how they were going to get rid of me." While other Democrats approached the new Administration cautiously, Wellstone raised hell. In one of the first confrontations between the Administration and the newly Democratic Senate, Wellstone used his chairmanship of a subcommittee on worker safety to demand that Bush Labor Department officials justify the Administration's rejection of federal ergonomics standards. And Bush aides are still smarting over a Wellstone amendment to the President's tax cut plan that diverted $17 billion to veterans programs.

For Bush and Rove, payback takes the form of Norm Coleman. A weathervane politician, Coleman switched from Democrat to Republican in the late 1990s. That and his too-slick-by-half style ("I've changed my party, my hair, my smile," he boasts) have never endeared him to the Republican faithful. But he plays well in the burgeoning suburbs of the Twin Cities, where voters know him from two terms as mayor of St. Paul and where Rove thinks the race could be decided. In a state where politics traditionally followed urban and rural lines--the DFL's "Farmer-Labor" tag recalls the populist party that merged with the Democrats in the 1940s--Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbanites now represent 44 percent of the state's population. That, explains DFL State Senator Jane Krentz, who represents suburbs northeast of St. Paul, "is shifting the way people look at politics."

Coleman's 2002 plan had been to avenge his 1998 loss of the Minnesota governorship to Jesse Ventura, the wrestler-turned-third-party-pol who has yet to decide whether he will seek a second term this year. (There was speculation at one point that Ventura might challenge Wellstone on the Independence Party ticket, but the talk fizzled. If Ventura seeks a new term, an Independence Party Senate candidate might still draw votes--most likely from Coleman. By the same token, a Green candidate could shave some votes off Wellstone's total. But third-party candidates are not expected to gain much traction arguing that voters lack a choice between Wellstone and Coleman.)

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