In all likelihood, the 2006 Minnesota Senate race will pit a well-rested Republican who eased to a primary triumph against a cash-drained Democrat who edged several opponents from the same party.
On one side is Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), who is not expected to face a serious primary challenge and has the full support of his party in Washington; on the other is a competitive field of Democrats who range from political novices to prominent figures in Minnesota politics. Candidates of both parties have begun campaigning and raising large amounts of money in hopes of filling Sen. Mark Dayton’s (D) seat in the 110th Congress.
The Republican Party has solidified behind Kennedy, who currently represents Minnesota’s 6th District. The congressman decided to leave the House for a chance at the Senate to attempt to unclog what he sees as a “lack of progress” in the Senate, an institution he said is characterized by partisan bickering that gets in the way of passing legislation.
Kennedy has won challenging races in the past, including a narrow victory in 2000 over four-term incumbent Rep. David Minge (D) and a 2004 defeat of Patty Wetterling.
Wetterling, a well-known child-safety advocate, is also a contender in 2006. She will compete for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party’s nomination against at least three other candidates. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, real-estate developer Kelly Doran and the president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Research Foundation, Ford Bell, have already begun campaigning.
The DFL will not endorse a candidate until after the state caucus in May 2006, and only Doran has said that he would run without the party’s blessing.
Conventional wisdom holds that this scenario could leave the DFLers in disarray, giving an advantage to Kennedy. The congressman has been actively campaigning since announcing his candidacy in February 2005 and has received the support of such Washington heavyweights as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was in Minnesota stumping for Kennedy on Sunday.
However, DFL Communications Director Bill Amberg disputes the conventional wisdom. He referred to the 2000 Senate race in which Dayton competed in a four-way primary and came out with a double-digit lead over incumbent Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.).
Amberg added, “We don’t tend to have these sharp-elbowed primaries that you see in other states. In Minnesota, they don’t really like to see Democrats taking shots at each other.”
Bell sees the broad field of Democratic candidates as an advantage: “We’re going to have several candidates with different life stories and different backgrounds who will be bringing more support and more donors [to the DFL] than any one candidate could.”
The Democratic candidates are a diverse — and well-funded — group.
Klobuchar is the only DFL candidate to hold public office. As county attorney, she has worked often with the state Legislature and seen crime in her district decrease while in office. Klobuchar raised $592,296 as of March 31, approximately $30,000 more than Kennedy.
While Wetterling has never held public office, she successfully advocated for child-safety legislation since the abduction of her son Jacob in 1989. Wetterling raised $329,876 in the first three weeks of her campaign and recently exceeded 10,000 individual contributions.
Doran has no prior government experience and plans to use his status as a political outsider and businessman to bring a “new kind of leadership in the United States Senate.” While not a well-known name in political circles, Doran recently disclosed personal assets of at least $57 million that could be channeled into his campaign.
Although the DFL candidates represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds, they are unified in their opposition to Kennedy. They called the congressman a handpicked candidate who is too closely aligned with the Republican leadership and corruption in Washington.
Both Amberg and Doran criticized Kennedy for his 98 percent voting record with President Bush. “Everything that the president wants done Kennedy votes for,” Doran said, “and I think that Minnesota wants a candidate who can lead.”
Kennedy said that he does act independently and across party lines, citing the Freeing Alternatives for Speedy Transportation Act that he introduced with Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and “Fair Care” legislation co-sponsored with Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). He also rejected claims that he is swayed by the president, saying that he votes according to his personal family values.
“I have a 100 percent voting record with my mother,” Kennedy said.