- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Just when I think the Democrats are beginning to figure out how to respond more successfully to the Republicans, I am reminded that some Democrats today are their own worst enemy.

A case in point has just occurred in the Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. Incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is retiring so that he can run for the Senate seat that Democrat Mark Dayton is vacating. This district is very conservative although, because many Democrats in it are pro-life and pro-gun and support the war in Iraq, the split between the parties is not so great as the one between right and left.

Mr. Kennedy’s opponent in 2004 was child welfare advocate Patty Wetterling, who became nationally famous after her son, Jacob, was kidnapped in 1989 and never found. She has devoted herself ever since to helping the parents of other missing children and promoting programs for child protection. With almost complete and positive name recognition, she was thought to be a formidable challenger to Mr. Kennedy, and did come somewhat closer than expected, but she lost by 8 percent.

When Mr. Kennedy announced his plans for 2006, it was expected that Mrs. Wetterling would run for the open seat, especially since several conservatives were battling it out for the Republican nomination. In 2005, however, Mrs. Wetterling announced she would run for the Senate, declaring that she “could not win in the 6th District.” This made sense because Mrs. Wetterling is pro-choice, anti-gun and has called for U.S. withdrawal in Iraq, all positions which are unpopular in the 6th District.

The Democrats then found a candidate who was a remarkable fit for this district, composed mostly of suburbs north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Elwyn Tinklenberg had been longtime mayor of Blaine, one of its largest communities. He was pro-life and pro-gun, and he was a Methodist minister. He had also been commissioner of transportation under Gov. Jesse Ventura (who was very popular here). With the Republican Party quarrelling over its nominee, Mr. Tinklenberg had a very genuine opportunity to win a seat hitherto thought to be safe for the Republicans (just as Pennsylvania Democrats have rallied behind pro-life and pro-gun Robert Casey Jr. as their nominee for the Senate seat now held by Republican Rick Santorum. Mr. Casey now seems likely to defeat Mr. Santorum).

But Mrs. Wetterling was not faring well in the Senate contest in Minnesota. Although she had raised $1.2 million, but she only had $200,000 left even before the contest had begun in earnest.

Presumably, she had spent almost $1 million to pay her fund-raisers and outside consultants. Her Democratic opponent had not only outraised her in campaign funds, she had a much higher percentage of funds left. Mrs. Wetterling’s name recognition also seemed to have less impact this year, facing an effective Democratic opponent who appeared to demonstrate a broader knowledge of issues.

There was immediate speculation about what Mrs. Wetterling would do after she withdrew from the Senate race. The state’s Democratic attorney general, and the frontrunner for the party’s nomination for governor in 2006, asked her to be his running mate. When she had withdrawn from the congressional race almost a year before, she had also promised Mr. Tinklenberg unequivocally that she would not be a candidate for Congress. Much to the surprise of many Democrats, including friends and supporters, however, she announced she would re-enter the 6th District race. Her Republican opponents were delighted, as was the state Republican Party. Mr. Tinklenberg and his supporters are outraged, having worked months to build support and raise funds for his candidacy. He immediately declared he would stay in the race and made Mrs. Wetterling agree to abide by the party endorsing convention.

The result has been a profound deflation of Patty Wetterling’s political reputation. Mr. Tinklenberg stated that “she is now just another politician.” Republicans were even stronger in their criticism, and Democratic strategists in Minnesota and Washington are appalled at what could become a lost opportunity. Having contributed to her Senate campaign, Mr. Tinklenberg only half-jokingly pointed out that he may be the only candidate this year who is having his own money being used against him.

Of course, with her strong name recognition, Mrs. Wetterling cannot be ruled out of the race for her party’s nomination. At the least, she will force Mr. Tinklenberg to spend some of his much-needed campaign treasury before the autumn campaign. If somehow she does win the nomination, she will provoke a significant percentage of Democrats and independents to vote for whomever is the Republican nominee, as they have in the past. Unlike Mr. Tinklenberg and any of the probable Republican candidates for this seat, Mrs. Wetterling has no experience in elective office, nor has she shown much interest in any issues other than child welfare.

This would not seem to be the way to rebuild the Democratic Party.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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