Third Time’s the Challenge

Targeted by the White House, Paul Wellstone may face his toughest race yet.

David Moberg

Sen. Paul Wellstone admits his re-election race will be close. After all, he won both of his previous races with around 50 percent of the vote, and the state’s political climate has changed since then. Plus, the White House has targeted him this time, pouring money into the campaign of Republican Norm Coleman. But Wellstone remains confident.

Part of the reason why was sitting in a Minneapolis office earlier this summer. Nearly 75 college-age volunteers from Minnesota and around the country—part of a much larger corps of full- and part-time volunteers—were getting a quick lesson in grassroots organizing from campaign manager Jeff Blodgett. Blodgett, a former student of Wellstone’s when he taught political science at Carleton College, told them they would be focusing their efforts on “people who are or should be Democrats—the emphasis on the should be.”

The biggest challenge for Wellstone lies in reaching the state’s growing, shifting mass of independent voters. Although Minnesota is often identified as liberal, reflecting the politics of native sons Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Blodgett argues that it is more accurately defined as populist. In the past decade, Minnesota voters have elected not only liberal senators Wellstone and Mark Dayton, but also right-winger Rod Grams and Reform Party maverick Jesse Ventura (who beat Coleman and Humphrey’s son, Skip, to become governor in 1998).

Wellstone appeals to voters who like someone fighting for the little guy, but he is also vulnerable to the state’s willingness to turn out incumbents—especially since he irritated some by running for a third time after promising, following his first victory, that he would serve only two terms. Wellstone simply says that with the Senate narrowly in Democratic control and the Republicans controlling the House and presidency, he feels it’s important for him to stay and fight. But he has belatedly learned the old lesson of “never say ‘never.’ ”

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During his first two terms, Wellstone has tried to play by different rules, staking out one of the most consistently progressive records in the Senate. The make-up of the chamber has forced Wellstone to spend more of his time fighting Republican proposals and even the conservative drift of his own party—like his vote against President Clinton’s welfare reform—than promoting the big issues that inspire him, such as single-payer national health insurance.

Yet Wellstone has learned how to get things done on a smaller scale, even working with Republicans, such as New Mexico’s Pete Domenici and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, to make insurance companies give parity to mental health care and improve retraining programs for displaced workers. He also has taken lonely stands for principle, such as when he was one of only two senators to write a letter supporting former SEC chief Arthur Levitt’s position that accounting firms, like Arthur Andersen, should not provide consulting services to accounting clients. At the time, about 75 senators—Democrats as well as Republicans—wrote letters opposing such restrictions. Then came the Enron scandal.

But Wellstone also has been attacked from the left for his support of military action after September 11, his sympathies for Israel, and his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act (which Wellstone admits is “the vote I most question” from 12 years in the Senate). As a result, the Minnesota Green Party nominated American Indian activist Ed McGaa to run against Wellstone. Although he plans to fight for Green voters—who gave 5 percent of the state’s presidential votes to Ralph Nader in 2000—McGaa’s bid may do less damage to Wellstone than to the nascent party, making the Greens appear deliberately marginal and destructive of viable left politics.

Wellstone is respectful of the fractious movements that supply many of the troops for his grassroots politicking, but he is frustrated with the way many progressives evaluate political strategy. “I always remember that [historian] Barrington Moore talked about the historically viable options,” he says. “Don’t do some analysis that says welfare mothers in the ’60s should have made a coalition with the building trades. Well, they would have liked to, but the building trades weren’t interested. You judge people by what are historically viable options. I’m very proud of what I’ve done in the Senate.”

At the same time, he says that progressives need to better understand and tolerate differences among themselves. “It always makes me angry when people assume—and it happens on the left—that if someone takes a different position, it’s only because he doesn’t have courage, not because he doesn’t have a different position.”

In a close race, a couple thousand votes could be very important. But Dan McGrath, executive director of Progressive Minnesota, expects Wellstone to lose few votes to the Greens. “There’s not a greater leader for progressive issues than him,” he says. “I think a lot of Greens will be pulled that way.”

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A far bigger wild card could be Jesse Ventura’s Independence Party. Ventura will not run for re-election this year, but former conservative Democratic Rep. Tim Penny will run for governor, giving a potential boost to the party and its neophyte Senate candidate, a banker named Jim Moore, who will probably draw more votes from Coleman than Wellstone. “The Independence vote might be gravy for Wellstone,” McGrath says. “They might be conservative or independent-minded folks, as well as some civil libertarians, who might otherwise go with Republicans for economic reasons. That’s a liability for Norm.”

Wellstone will paint Coleman, once a popular mayor associated with the revival of downtown St. Paul, as a hardcore conservative who won’t take stands. Coleman used to be a Democrat, and his party-switching may hurt his credibility with some voters, especially since he delivered a rousing nomination speech six years ago on behalf of Wellstone. “We’re running against a guy who doesn’t believe in anything or sides with the White House,” Blodgett says. “He’s a moving target on the issues. He tries to hide his position on some issues. … It’s our job to expose him as the kind of politician he is, the worst kind, who will say whatever people want to hear … and do whatever it takes to advance himself.”

Polls consistently have shown Wellstone with a slim lead, within the margin of error, and the percentage of voters declaring themselves undecided is relatively small for this early in the season. Wellstone appears to be way ahead with lower-income and less-educated voters, as one might expect from a progressive pushing “kitchen-table economic issues.” He also leads with very young and very old voters, as well as voters aged 45 to 54. Wellstone’s polling also reflects a giant gender gap—with women favoring him—so he’s calling attention to Coleman’s total opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

Wellstone has a strong edge over Coleman in rural and small town areas, and his support for the recent farm bill—especially the conservation measures—should help him further. But the population of “greater Minnesota” is shrinking and becoming more suburban. Wellstone thinks his emphasis on education will help with suburban voters, and he’s counting on the Democratic base in the Twin Cities core. Given the trends in other centers of well-educated, high-tech voters, Wellstone should be able to make deeper inroads than he has among better-educated suburbanites with his emphasis on environmental, education and social issues. Yet, as Wellstone argues, noting that not all suburbs are affluent, “for a lot of people who live in suburbs these issues of affordable housing and health care and childcare are as important as anywhere else.”

Wellstone’s long history of corporate criticism may prove politically advantageous against Coleman, whose law firm has lobbied for many big corporate interests, including Enron. The Wellstone campaign has pressured Coleman to return contributions from several tainted corporations or their top executives, including WorldCom and Global Crossing, and is making protection of Social Security a major issue since Coleman supports a form of privatization. “This race could come down to who do you trust to be a real watchdog for your pensions and retirement,” says Wellstone spokesman Jim Farrell, “and if it does, we’ll win.”

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Over the years, Wellstone has had the good political sense to mind local constituencies while fighting on the big issues. He wins kudos nationally for opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he scores points in Minnesota by talking about polluted lakes that threaten walleye fishing and by reminding hunters that he beat back Trent Lott’s efforts to shorten the Minnesota duck-hunting season. Likewise, Wellstone has won support from groups ranging from veterans to medical device manufacturers, a prominent Minnesota industry, for his efforts on their behalf. “What Wellstone has got to do is tell concretely what he’s done for people and what he will do in the future,” argues Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier. “The more he can stay on that and the evidentiary record, the better it will be.”

Indeed, after the campaign ran a positive television ad about his accomplishments for just one week in June, Wellstone’s approval ratings rose sharply. But attacks on Wellstone could turn rough and nasty. Already a statewide anti-abortion group with close ties to Coleman has been conducting a telephone campaign to lists of church members, attacking Wellstone as an “extreme” pro-abortion senator who has blocked all Bush judicial appointments (although Wellstone publicly supported a Bush appointee from Minnesota).

With a broad base of small contributors and strong support from labor, Wellstone thought he would be able to adequately counter Coleman on television. But anti-Wellstone, “independent” campaigns, like the harsh radio spots attacking Wellstone for “taxing the dead” because of his opposition to repealing the estate tax, could help tip the balance the other way.

Ultimately, national politics may define the race: Come November, will Minnesotans want a senator who solidly backs the president, playing up national security issues, or one who is fighting for a much different agenda? Wellstone is betting that tax cuts for the rich and privatization of Social Security won’t win majority support in the state. In the end, however, he thinks that “character and trust,” a preference for a candidate who is clear on where he stands, will tip the race in his favor.

That and the work of hundreds of grassroots volunteers. “There are not that many elections with the effort we have on field operations,” he told the students in Minneapolis.

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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