The George W. Bush years made plain to progressives just how much power a president wields. Many on the left concluded that all we need is to elect a Democrat as president to solve all of our problems. With the efforts of groups like America Votes, Progress Now and the Democracy Alliance, Democrats bolstered their electoral infrastructure in 2008 and won big. 

However, the first two years of the Obama presidency taught us an important lesson: electoral power does not equal governing power. Obama spent a full year lining up his own party on a health care bill of diminished size, scope and ambition. A modest financial reform bill took a Democratic-controlled Congress twenty-two months to pass and the BP oil spill reminds us all that America lacks a coherent energy policy.

How do progressives meet the challenge of a daunting midterm election while also laying the ground work for a bolder governing agenda? To start, we must admit that our own short-sighted electoral strategies do not create the necessary political space for the change we want. Second, we have to get across a new kind of story about the roles of citizens and government in a time of intense cynicism and tea party clatter. 

Some of the best ideas on how to make change that can stick can be found in the states, where progressives are experimenting with innovative strategies to build a progressive governing infrastructure that lasts far beyond Election Day. One such example is the reNEW Minnesota Campaign, led by the grassroots organization, TakeAction Minnesota.

The Story of the reNEW Minnesota Campaign

Minnesota is a solidly purple state that no longer fits the political profile associated with Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone. While it’s voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1972, the state hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor in twenty-four years.

After eight years at the helm, Minnesota’s Governor Tim Pawlenty (a Republican who never earned more than 46.7 percent of the vote in his two separate three-way elections) is stepping down, presumably to run for President. In his wake, Pawlenty has left Minnesota with a $5.8 billion budget deficit — one of the worst in the country. Holding tight to his no new taxes pledge, Pawlenty’s Minnesota has become a national leader in economic, educational and health care inequality. Once known for its innovative state policies, Minnesota is now watching its human and physical infrastructure literally crumble. What happens in Minnesota’s 2010 race for governor has huge implications for how the Heartland responds to this storm of economic recession and political cynicism. 

Rather than approach the governor’s race this year with the same strategies and expect different results (the very definition of insanity), progressives in Minnesota decided on a completely different line of attack for 2010. Led by TakeAction Minnesota—a young and growing statewide organization of individuals and organizations that traces its roots back to Paul Wellstone—progressives in the state started organizing a full twenty-two months before Election Day 2010 to break the 24-year drought.

TakeAction Minnesota developed its strategy around a single provocative idea: what would progressive politics look like if governing, not Election Day, were seen as its ultimate goal? Instead of building an organization around a candidate, organizers engaged people around a vision of a different kind of state that they helped to create. Community leaders and activists were asked how Minnesota might look, and act, differently if their gut values were driving the debate. Leaders within key voter blocs were invited to participate, so that voter mobilization efforts in the fall feed issue campaigns post-election.

TakeAction Minnesota did just this throughout 2009, and christened a new model of political engagement for the 2010 governor’s race called the reNEW Minnesota campaign. Working to endorse, and elect, an ally as governor would be a key strategy to building a broader movement to advance a progressive governing agenda in 2011. By the time the reNEW Minnesota campaign was debuted at the end of September 2009, it was clear that this vision of a “renewed Minnesota” tapped something deep inside many people. The official launch event was unprecedented in Minnesota history, both for its scale and diversity. More than 800 people from all corners of the state came to St. Paul, including the eleven Democratic candidates running for governor. The proceedings were translated into Spanish, Somali and Hmong.  

reNEW Takes on DFL State Convention

In Minnesota, there is no better way to build a statewide network of grassroots leaders than through the state’s caucus and convention process. From local caucus meetings in late winter, delegates are chosen for district endorsing conventions, eventually feeding the state party conventions in the spring, where candidates for governor would be endorsed. reNEW Minnesota, which by this time had already built a network of more than two-thousand committed community leaders in sixty-three of the state’s sixty-seven senate districts, was well positioned to turn out big numbers to the DFL State Convention to control the outcome of the gubernatorial endorsement.

Since TakeAction’s reNEW Minnesota campaign was based on a clear set of values, rather than allegiance to any single governor candidate, the reNEW campaign winnowed the field of contenders not to one, but to its top three gubernatorial candidates through a first-of-its-kind online, mail, and in-person voting system. Two days before the first precinct caucus was held, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Speaker of the Minnesota House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and State Representative Paul Thissen were selected by TakeAction members as reNEW’s three “preferred” candidates for governor.

The organizing goal was simple: mobilize people early around a commonality of self-interest, then inspire them to fight for the values they believe in — at the state convention, during the primary and general elections, and into the 2011 legislative session. 

The strategy worked impressively at the DFL State Convention where the reNEW delegation accounted for thirteen percent of all delegates, including twenty-percent delegates of color and thirty-three percent delegates from greater Minnesota. reNEW gained significant statewide media attention because of its delegate clout at the convention, but also because it was practicing politics differently. Instead of building state delegate strength solely for the purpose of endorsing a candidate, the reNEW Minnesota campaign had built a deep bench of leaders statewide to make sure that whichever of its three preferred candidates left the convention as the party’s endorsed candidate (ultimately, reNEW’s Margaret Anderson Kelliher), would also have the grassroots infrastructure to win the primary and general elections and start implementing a progressive agenda once in office.

Into the August Primary

The convention victory marked just one important milestone on the road to changing Minnesota for the better. As the August 10 primary election approaches, reNEW leaders are knocking on doors, making phone calls, and hosting community forums around the state for its endorsed candidate, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. As they do, they are also doing deeper political education on the state’s priorities in the face of the budget deficit and how to put Minnesota on a different path over the next several years.

Kelliher, who faces two millionaire challengers in the Democratic primary, has a unique advantage in her support from the reNEW Minnesota campaign. The 2006 gubernatorial race was decided by a mere 21,000 votes. As such, reNEW’s grassroots support should be decisive. And the values it is seeding on the campaign trail, are expected to bear fruit once Kelliher transitions to forming the next administration.

Ultimately reNEW Minnesota will be the backbone of an organized grassroots effort the next governor will need to move an agenda. But this time, it’s not waiting for a candidate to lay out a vision of change. reNEW Minnesota leaders already have their own vision prepared and are determined to bring it to light.