St. Paul, Minn. — While the 2006 election is more than a year away, three Democrats have already been campaigning for months. The first to enter the race, State Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, holds several house parties a week to talk to voters.
At a recent house party in St. Louis Park, Kelley told a group of neighbors that Gov. Tim Pawlenty is beatable, but it won't be easy.
"I think the only way to beat him is to unite Democrats, and then reach out and incorporate in the coalition the independents and moderate Republicans who don't like the direction he is trying to take the state," said Kelley.
Kelley said he thinks he's the only Democrat who can do that. He acknowledged that he has an image of being "not quite Mr. Excitement", but said he's working on being able to better convey his message.
When one of the neighbors asked him how he would distinguish himself from Mike Hatch, Kelley joked, "I actually have businesspeople who like me."
As the group laughed, Kelley singled out his wife Sophie. "I've been married to a businessperson for 30 years now, and my family are small businesspeople," Kelley said.
Hatch has taken on corporations ranging from banks to HMOs as attorney general, which has also earned him praise from many Democrats. But many of his targets have complained about his bare-knuckle tactics. Kelley said Hatch is not a shoo-in for the DFL endorsement, and noted that many of the new DFL delegates from last year have never voted to endorse Hatch.
The other two Democrats who are already campaigning -- Kelly Doran and Bud Philbrook -- are positioning themselves as political outsiders who can appeal to voters tired of partisan bickering at the Capitol.
Doran is a successful real estate developer who spent $750 thousand of his own money on a U.S. Senate bid before switching to the governor's race. He paid for billboards and radio ads to get his name out to voters, and his first television ad has started running across the state. Doran said many people he's talked to are impressed that there's a Democratic candidate who's a businessman.
"They're getting tired of politicians that just want to feed them words, and don't want to feed them results," Doran said. "And we want to create results, and that's where I come from in the business community. I've created jobs, I've paid for health care, I know how to deal with those issues."
Doran said he hasn't decided whether to abide by the party endorsement. Former legislator Bud Philbrook said he'll definitely run in the primary if he doesn't get the endorsement. Philbrook, founder of Global Volunteers, hasn't served in the Legislature since the 1970s. He said that's an advantage.
"The last time we the DFL successfully endorsed and elected an insider, meaning a state attorney general, a state representative, a state senator, big city mayor, was 35 years ago. Wendy Anderson," Philbrook said.
The last Democrat who won the governor's race was Rudy Perpich, who didn't get the party's endorsement when he ran in 1982.
Despite being a relative unknown, Philbrook said he's encouraged by a recent Zogby/Wall Street Journal poll showing him just six points behind Gov. Pawlenty. The same poll showed Hatch beating Pawlenty 49 to 45 percent, within the poll's margin of sampling error.
State Republican Party chair Ron Carey questions the poll's methodology, and said he believes Pawlenty will do well against whichever candidate emerges from the DFL field.
"The Republican Party is incredibly united behind the governor at this point in time," Carey said. "We're ready to go to battle on his behalf, because we know that the alternative of having a Steve Kelley or a Mike Hatch or a Kelly Doran as governor is something that's very motivating to the Republican base."
When Tim Pawlenty ran for governor four years ago, he won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Independence Party candidate Tim Penny drew 16 percent, and some DFLers say the third party movement has hurt their chances to win the governor's office. This year, former state finance commissioner Peter Hutchinson said he's leaning toward running as an IP candidate.
Republicans clearly view Hatch as the biggest DFL threat to Pawlenty, and have already launched a website critical of his record. State Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick, who sought the DFL endorsement for governor in 2002, is also poised to jump in the race. She says she'll announce her intentions after the November municipal elections.