Wellstone’s Revenge: How Minnesota Democrats Took Their State Back
Minnesota’s once-woebegone progressives have quietly crafted a road map for turning state capitols blue.
By Andy Kroll/ Mother Jones/ September/October 2013
Illustration: Owen Smith
It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and nearly 50 of Minnesota’s most powerful businessmen and Republican operatives met for lunch at the Town and Country Club, overlooking the Mississippi River in western St. Paul. They had gathered at the invitation of Tom Rosen, who runs the nation’s fifth-largest beef-processing company, and Stan Hubbard, the billionaire media magnate who pioneered satellite television. Over Caesar salad and tomato-basil soup, Rosen, Hubbard, and their friends bemoaned the direction of their state. As one after another rose to speak, the tone was one of outrage and incredulity: “It’s time we coordinate.” “It’s time we stand up and do something.” “We’re getting chewed up!”
How far has the GOP fallen from the days when Minnesota was Karl Rove’s prime example for the cascade of blue states poised to turn red and create a permanent Republican majority? A decade ago, Tim Pawlenty was governor, Norm Coleman had replaced the late Paul Wellstone in the US Senate, and Rove was touting Minnesota—which hadn’t voted for a Republican president in 37 years—as a battleground state. Today, Democrats control the state Legislature. They hold both US Senate seats, five of the state’s eight congressional seats, and every constitutional office—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor. In November, they defeated ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage and enact restrictive voter ID rules. And to top it all off, Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party torchbearer under investigation for ethics violations, announced in May that she would not seek reelection. “If you look at the history of our party since 1944, we’re at the apex of our political power,” gushes Ken Martin, the chairman of what in Minnesota is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.
They’ve not been shy about using that power. Last spring, Gov. Mark Dayton signed bills legalizing gay marriage, creating Minnesota’s Obamacare health insurance exchange, allowing public colleges to freeze tuition, and investing $174 million into pre-K and all-day kindergarten. Dayton and his Democratic colleagues erased a $627 million budget deficit by hiking taxes on smokers, car rentals, and the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans. At the same time, they cut property taxes for middle-class families. It was the most liberal legislative session anyone could remember—and a nightmare for the guests at Rosen and Hubbard’s luncheon. “It was a big wake-up call,” Hubbard told me in June at his St. Paul office, where a framed letter from Ronald Reagan hangs next to a replica of the Declaration of Independence.
Minnesota’s liberal revival may seem like an outlier considering the conservative resurgence in state capitols. Two decades ago, Republicans had one-party control in just three states, while Democrats ran the show in 18. But today 31 states have GOP governors, and in 24 of those, Republicans control both branches of government, compared to 13 for the Democrats. Right next door to Minnesota, Wisconsin is a particularly vivid example: In a onetime bastion of progressivism, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature have targeted unions andpublic servants, shuttered abortion clinics, and passed a rigid voter ID law. “They’re talking about transvaginal ultrasounds and all that shit,” says Denise Cardinal, a Minnesota operative who runs the ProgressNow network of liberal advocacy groups. “We’re talking about raising taxes on the rich and paying back our school debt.” For that Minnesotans can thank—or blame—a small, press-shy circle of operatives, activists, donors, and party leaders who have built a political machine that chugs year-round to elect Democratic candidates and pass progressive policies. It is fueled by big unions and wealthy donors, the best data in the business, and an unusual level of collaboration among organizations that have very different priorities. Their strategy has created a road map for Democrats from Concord to Santa Fe. “The next phase for the progressive movement has to be taking our states back,” says Jeff Blodgett, a 30-year veteran of Minnesota politics who was the Obama campaign’s state director in 2008 and 2012.
This is the story of how that happened—for now—in Minnesota. And it begins in the worst imaginable way.
2002-04: It Can’t End Like This
Blodgett began the longest day of his life feeling like a winner. The date was October 25, 2002. In 12 days, Minnesotans were poised to send Blodgett’s boss, Paul Wellstone, to Washington for a third term. No one, save maybe the senator himself, wanted a Wellstone win like Blodgett did.
The two men met at Carleton College in 1979 when Blodgett was a student in Wellstone’s Poli Sci 10 course. More than a decade later, after Wellstone had traded the campus for the campaign trail, he hired Blodgett to manage his quixotic, shoestring bid for the US Senate. Against the odds, and thanks in part to an early version of the data-centric, get-out-the-vote-focused campaigning that later took Barack Obama to the White House, Wellstone won. The organizer-turned-senator became a liberal icon; Blodgett was his flinty, soft-spoken protégé, a wunderkind later nicknamed the “Yoda of Minnesota politics.”
Blodgett steered Wellstone to victory again in 1996, and almost six years later, as the senator, his wife, Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers boarded a Beechcraft King Air A100 to attend a funeral, Blodgett set his mind to the day ahead—a debate in Duluth, a rally with actor Josh Hartnett in St. Paul. But the Beechcraft never arrived, crashing south of Eveleth and killing everyone on board.
Blodgett was shattered. He pulled himself together enough to recruit former Vice President Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone’s place, but Norm Coleman, a onetime campus radical turned Republican rising star and Rove acolyte, eked out a 2-point win. After the election Blodgett was unemployed and adrift. He turned over the same thought in his head: It can’t end like this. “If we didn’t have Paul and Sheila around,” he recalled some years later, “we had to figure out the next best thing.”
The next best thing became Wellstone Action, an organization conceived by Blodgett to train candidates, campaign managers, and activists to win elections the “Wellstone way”—promising bold policy ideas, investing heavily in grassroots organizing, and forging diverse coalitions. In May 2003, Wellstone Action held its first Camp Wellstone, a two-and-a-half-day crash course in campaigns and elections, and in the ensuing years 55,000 people would graduate from these trainings. Of the 112 DFL lawmakers elected to the Legislature last year, 40 were Camp Wellstone alums. US Rep. Tim Walz and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie graduated from the same Camp Wellstone class in 2005.
In a way, Blodgett had kept Wellstone’s spirit alive, bottling up his teachings and tactics and spreading them far and wide. He didn’t know it then, but the groundwork for Minnesota’s progressive comeback was being laid.
Breaking down the cadre of organizers, operatives, and politicians nurtured by the late senator’s grassroots machine. —Zaineb Mohammed