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The Center of 'Minnewisowa'

By Barry Casselman

When I invented the word "Minnewisowa" four years ago, I was trying to describe in political shorthand the electoral mega-state of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa -- three midwestern "battleground" states with such similar demographics and proximity that they could make a significant difference in a presidential election.

One presidential election later, Minnewisowa continues to loom large as the paradigm map of the past two national elections appears ready to be replaced with a new paradigm map. Which is to say, the red state-blue state formulations that appeared previously to describe the electorate now seem poised to be driven by new political conditions and new electoral cartography.

In fact, as the summer of the 2008 presidential campaign season approaches, and the nominees of the two major parties are known, a shift is taking place from some midwestern states to some hitherto "safe" (for Democrats) rust-belt states in the Eastern/ Middle Atlantic regions of the country. It is also quite possible that some previously "safe" states (for Republicans) in the West could become battlegrounds.

If Hillary Clinton had been able to secure her party's nomination, this shift would probably not be happening. Votes in the primaries (not the caucuses) indicate that Senator Clinton would likely hold most of the "blue" states which the Democrats won in 2000 and 2004, and Senator McCain would have likely carried most of the "red states." As in those previous elections, the winner would be decided by the results in very few states, most of them in the midwest.

Senator Obama's candidacy alters the make-up of the electorate. In Minnewisowa, he shows new strength in Minnesota and Iowa (where he dramatically won the first contest of 2008), and possible weakness in Wisconsin where there are more blue collar voters than in the other two states. Nevertheless, all three states could be close in

It is no secret that 2008 has been expected to be a very big Democratic year. After two terms of a president and administration that has become, at its end, very unpopular, all indications have been that it is the Democrats' turn to take over the executive branch. The 2006 congressional and state elections provided a noticeable victory for the Democrats, including taking over control of both houses of Congress. Three off-year elections since then have been won by Democrats taking over previous Republican house seats.

The debate about whether "all politics is local" or that the campaign will be "nationalized" is about to be tested anew.

Republican strategists, fearing the latter, are in a panic, and many now expect 2008 to be another political disaster. Democratic strategists, delighting in expectations of the latter, are raising record amounts of cash to make themselves competitive in as many races as possible.

Minnesota, on paper, could be emblematic of the "national" theory of the 2008 campaign. Democrats, as they did elsewhere in the country, turned out in far greater numbers for their caucus than did Republicans. But Minnesota might be a contrarian "local" in this political year. John McCain was the best possible Republican presidential nominee for this state because he appeals to moderate Republicans, independents and some moderate/conservative Democrats.

Minnesota has become a politically centrist state. A Democrat (called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL) has not won the governorship since 1990, and that governor was a pro-life conservative DFLer. The last liberal DFLer to win the governorship was elected in 1974. Since 1978, Republicans have won 7 of the last 11 U.S. Senate races here, and picked up two U.S. House seats. On the other hand, DFLers won back a GOP House seat in 2006, and won big margins of control of both houses of the state legislature that year.

Incumbent GOP Senator Norm Coleman has been considered vulnerable ever since 2006. A pro-life Democrat (and popular mayor of St. Paul) until 1997, Coleman switched to the GOP and ran for governor. He might have defeated his old boss, DFL Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey, who was running for governor that year, but a third party candidate, former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, appeared and upset them both. Coleman finished his term as mayor, and decided to run again in 2002 for statewide office. He was persuaded by the White House that year to run for the U.S. Senate seat instead of for governor because incumbent DFLer Paul Wellstone had broken his promise to run only for two terms and was running for the third time. The race was close until the tragic death of Wellstone in an airplane crash ten days before the election. In spite of the last-minute replacement of Walter Mondale on the DFL ticket, Coleman won.

Coleman, who had received strong personal support from President Bush, voted with the president through 2005. As popular support for Bush waned after that, Coleman, as did many GOP senators, took a more independent view of GOP orthodoxy, voting against support of drilling for oil in Alaska and questioning our role in Iraq.

By 2006, it was clear that Coleman's likely opponent in 2008 would be TV comedian Al Franken, who had returned to Minnesota the year before, after decades of living in New York, to take an active part in state politics. Franken's celebrity kept many prominent DFLers out of the race, and only Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a college professor, and prominent attorney Mike Ciresi announced for the race. Ciresi, who had run unsuccessfully for the senate in 2000,
made a serious political mistake by agreeing to abide by the party endorsement, a process controlled by the party's left wing, and he bowed out after the February precinct caucuses party activists chose delegates who mostly supported Franken and Nelson-Pallmeyer.

Franken appeared headed for an easy endorsement and a reasonable chance to upset Coleman in November. But after a series of revelations about Franken's personal business corporation, Franken's popularity with DFL voters appears to have taken a hit, according to recent polls. This has been compounded by continued airing of Franken's satirical scripts and videos in which the comedian takes aim at many groups which compose the DFL base. Franken and his supporters point out that this is satire, and intended as jokes, but his critics contend that his language is offensive, his humor is tasteless and mocking to women, gays and lesbians. Franken says that he will not respond to this criticism, but since almost all of his professional life has been in comedy and satire, it is inevitable that his work is fair game, just as he claims fair game are the political statements and record of his opponent Norm Coleman.

With less than two weeks to go before the DFL endorsing convention, Franken has what appears to be an insurmountable lead over his only competitor, self-avowed radical professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Nonetheless, doubt and anxiety is to be found among many DFL activists who now fear that Franken is a grievously-flawed candidate for the DFL this year, and that he will not have the opportunity to focus criticism on incumbent Coleman since he will likely spend most of the campaign ahead on the defensive, trying to explain endless controversies.

Four of the eight Minnesota house seats theoretically could become competitive, but for now, incumbent DFL Congressman Tim Walz (MN-1) and incumbent GOP Congressman John Kline (MN-2) seem safe. In MN-6, incumbent GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann will be difficult to oust after her first term, although the DFL picked its strongest possible challenger Ev Tinklenberg to run against her. Tinklenberg so far trails Bachmann in fundraising in this conservative district.

The most competitive House race in Minnesota is MN-3 where popular incumbent GOP Congressman Jim Ramstad is retiring. The demographics of this suburban Minneapolis area now make it a "swing" district favoring a centrist candidate. Former GOP state house majority leader Eric Paulsen has Ramstad's enthusiastic support and is successfully fundraising so far. His opponent will be Ashwin Madia, 30, an Iraq veteran and attorney making his first run for public office. Madia, son of parents from India, upset moderate state senator Terri Bonoff for the DFL endorsement with an energetic campaign. Now conservative Paulsen and liberal Madia each move to the center where most of the votes in this district are. It could be one of the most competitive House races in the nation in 2008.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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