Thursday, May 18, 2006

The avian flu pandemic has thankfully not yet occurred, nor has it yet evolved so that it can spread from human to human. But in Minnesota, whose state bird is the loon, a contagion among Democrats and Republicans is spreading rapidly among political activists of both parties.

The clinical influenza season has ended, but the “loony flu” season has apparently only begun.

The Minnesota strain of this political disease shows certain symptoms. Each political party shows a compulsive desire to nominate candidates for contested offices who represent the most extreme wings of their party base. Even in the 5th Congressional District, 13-term incumbent Democrat (here the party is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) Martin Sabo surprisingly announced his retirement, and the DFL then endorsed a controversial black Muslim state legislator to replace him.

The 5th District, one of the most liberal in the country, saw more than a dozen candidates for the job. But the arcane party-endorsing system, which enables less than 2 percent of those who vote to make an “endorsement” prior to primary, has run into trouble one more time.

(In recent years, this precinct caucus system has enabled small factions to control the nominating process, and the endorsement system in both parties has often been ignored by candidates who have gone on to defeat party-endorsed candidates and then win election.)

There is going to be a contested DFL primary now in the 5th District that will draw political funds from DFL statewide races as well as distract the political media. The seat almost certainly will remain Democratic, but a serious third-party centrist candidate has already appeared.

In the Senate race, the incumbent DFLer, Mark Dayton, unexpectedly announced his retirement, setting this up as one of the most contested Senate races of 2006. Sixth District Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy was successful in assuring his party’s nod for this post early, and it seemed that Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar had done the same. Mr. Kennedy represents the most conservative wing of his party, but Ms. Klobuchar is a moderate liberal DFLer. Her toughest challenger, child-welfare activist Patty Wetterling, was “persuaded” to withdraw (and run again in the race in the 6th Congressional Distirict), Ms. Klobuchar had only very liberal philanthropist Ford Bell to defeat for the DFL nomination, and he trailed badly in the polls.

Mr. Bell, however, echoes much of the party’s political base sentiment, has raised a substantial amount for his campaign and received the endorsement of several DFL “big names.” Ms. Klobuchar is likely to defeat him for endorsement, but should Mr. Bell run in the Sept. 12 primary, he would present Ms. Klobuchar with big political problems, including using up her vital campaign funds and drawing her to the left only seven weeks before the general election.

To complicate matters further, the Independence Party has come up with a dynamic 29 year-old centrist candidate (his 30th birthday is a few weeks before the new Senate would be sworn in) named Robert Fitzgerald, who is going around the state in a colorful bus. (The last Irish-American 29-year-old who ran for the Senate against impossible odds was Joe Biden in Delaware in 1972. He won, is still in the Senate and running for president in 2008.)

It is in the 6th District, where incumbent Mark Kennedy is retiring to run for the Senate, that state legislator Michelle Bachmann won party endorsement recently against three male conservatives.Itisgenerally acknowledged that she was the most conservative in the race, running hard on gay marriage and other social conservative issues. Some observers thought her fellow legislator Jim Knoblach would make the better member of Congress, and less of a target of the DFL (which has already labelled her an “evil” force). But the delegates thought otherwise, and she easily won endorsement. She now has no opponents for her party’s nomination.

On the DFL side, after Mrs. Wetterling’s defeat by Mr. Kennedy in 2004, it was thought she would try again. However, her own assessment was that she could not win in the state’s most conservative district, and she entered the Senate race instead. The DFL found a moderate, Elwyn Tinklenberg, who had been mayor of the district’s largest city for a decade, after which he became the state commissioner of transportation under Gov. Jesse Ventura. He seemed the ideal fit for the district, and gave the DFL a genuine opportunity to pick up a previous safe seat from the Republican Party. Unable to tolerate a “pro-life” DFL candidate, however, Mrs. Wetterling and her Emily’s List national allies decided she would re-enter the race.

In fact, after seven ballots, she recently won party endorsement and now will face Mrs. Bachmann in November. A pro-choice, pro-gun control liberal who favors immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Mrs. Wetterling would seem unlikely to win in this conservative district, which is overwhelmingly pro-life and pro-gun, and which gave President Bush his largest margin of victory in the state in 2004.

It all adds up to a statewide epidemic of loony flu. The only known cure is a medicine called the November elections.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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