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Senate Race Already a Slugfest
By Laura McCallum
September 13, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Primary 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Former State Auditor Mark Dayton captured more than 40 percent of the vote to win the competitive DFL Senate primary. The department store heir spent $5 million of his own money in the most expensive primary in Minnesota history, defeating Mike Ciresi, Jerry Janezich and Rebecca Yanisch. Dayton now faces Republican Senator Rod Grams, who came out swinging when he found out who his DFL opponent is.

Dayton speaks to reporters after acknowledging his victory Tuesday night. Listen to MPR interview)

See larger image.
DAYTON MAY HAVE BEEN the biggest spender, but his primary night gathering was the least lavish, taking place in his campaign office in an Eagan strip mall. Dayton was remarkably subdued about his overwhelming victory, and pointed out that he's been through this before, when he ran for this very same Senate seat 18 years ago.

"I learned in 1982 that if you lose the general election, winning the primary is not a consolation prize," Dayton said.

Dayton was the clear front-runner in recent polls, and consistently had the highest name recognition among the DFL candidates. He spent the bulk of his money on a massive television advertising blitz, blanketing the airwaves all summer while the other Democrats largely held off until just before the primary.

Many observers say Dayton ran a brilliant campaign, appealing to seniors by shuttling bus tours to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs, and running an ad campaign focused on health care and Social Security. After he was declared the victor, Dayton disputed the notion that his Canadian bus trips pandered to the senior vote.

                 US SENATOR
DAVID SWAN  898 63
      INDEPENDENCE Totals Pct 
FRED H. ASKEW  461 8
MARK DAYTON  179737 41
MIKE CIRESI  97160 22
"DICK" FRANSON  1330 0
OLE SAVIOR  1265 0
      REPUBLICAN Totals Pct 
ROD GRAMS  112635 89
BILL DAHN  13735 11

"Anybody with a pollster can identify the Democratic breakdown of a primary electorate. Connecting with real people on the issues they care about is another matter, and we were all striving to do that," Dayton said.

Dayton says he'll spent the next eight weeks of the campaign talking about those issues, and how his views differ from Republican Rod Grams. Dayton wasn't willing to start the debate on primary night, but Grams wasted no time.

He says Dayton has had a free ride for the last couple of months, and needs to tell voters how he'll pay for his proposals.

"It's all more big government," Grams declared. "Big government takes control of your Social Security. Big government takes care of health care. Big government to take over our education. That's the way Mark Dayton would vote." (Listen)

Grams told a couple hundred supporters at a Mall of America bar that Dayton is out of touch with reality. He launched the general election campaign by borrowing a line from pro wrestler "The Rock" that voters are likely to hear again in the next two months.

"Mark Dayton, can you smell not what the rock is cooking, but can you smell what the Rod is cooking tonight?"

Grams says he'll likely be outspent by Dayton, a multi-millionaire who self-financed his primary campaign, but has said he will raise money from other Democratic contributors for the general election.

Dayton pledged to use his wealth to help other DFL candidates in November, and had said if he lost the primary, he would help the winner financially. His closest Senate competitor, Mike Ciresi, wasn't quite as generous. The Minneapolis trial lawyer, who got 22 percent of the vote, urged his supporters to unite behind Dayton, but says he won't be writing Dayton a check.

"He doesn't need our money," said Ciresi. "Anybody who spends $6, $7 million dollars in seven weeks doesn't need our money."

Ciresi says he still believes he's the best Democrat to challenge Grams, but says a couple of factors may have led to his second-place showing. Ciresi says he shouldn't have let Dayton dominate the airwaves all summer, and he thinks a series of negative e-mails that have been linked to Grams' campaign staff contributed to his defeat.

"When you have this low of a turnout, that's another damning thing on all of us, me included, that we couldn't get more people out to vote."

An unofficial estimate shows only about 16 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest primary turnout since at least 1974. Many observers thought low turnout might lead to a victory for the DFL's endorsed candidate, State Senator Jerry Janezich, but he came in right behind Ciresi with 21 percent of the vote.

Mike Ciresi concedes defeat Tuesday night. See larger image.
Janezich, who campaigned as the only non-millionaire in the race, says the party endorsement can only do so much.

"Part of the problem ultimately is that the party currently doesn't have the kinds of resources it should have," Janezich said. "The other part of it is that in this race, there were people who had a lot of resources." (Listen)

Janezich appeared to take his defeat in stride, and says he hasn't given much thought to his future plans. But Janezich has hinted about a future Senate bid.

Fourth-place finisher Rebecca Yanisch also hinted she might run for office again. The Twin Cities businesswoman got 15 percent of the vote, and told supporters at a Minneapolis restaurant that she backs Dayton 100 percent.

"I will help Mark in any way I can, because the cause we share is great, because he's a good and decent man, and because the need to replace Rod Grams is absolutely clear," she said. (Listen)

DFL leaders hope that tone of unity continues, and that supporters of all the candidates will now get behind Dayton. The four-way contest was generally congenial, with any battles limited to differences over the issues, which analysts say puts Dayton in good shape for the general election.