|GOP, Democrats Locked In Race Toward Decline
||[13 Oct 2002|12:08am]
By David Von Drehle and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 4, 2002; Page A01
The lesson of Election 2000 -- a virtual tie in the House, Senate and presidential balloting -- seemed to be that there are two Americas, red and blue, Republican and Democrat, locked in vigorous combat, evenly matched.
That's not the whole picture, here in Minnesota or nationally. Minnesota is a state well known for its tradition of liberalism, but no one has won a Senate race here with more than 50.4 percent of the vote in 14 years. In 2000, the state unexpectedly became a presidential battleground.
The parity of the parties shows up here in Anoka County, a northern exurb of Minneapolis-St. Paul where statewide races are decided, as a shared weakness. Republicans and Democrats are locked not in a struggle for dominance, but in a race toward decline.
"Party allegiance is nothing with people my age. Party stuff is silly," says Dan Davila, 29, an easygoing college student. Like a lot of Minnesotans from around the Twin Cities, Davila comes from a long line of Democrats. But now he says with a shrug: "Who the hell cares who Grandma voted for?"
Davila is sitting behind a table at the Anoka County Fair. It is a summer evening; a light breeze stirs the aroma of grilled pork chops and live cows. Somewhere nearby, an Elvis impersonator is braying. On Davila's table are buttons and pamphlets extolling former representative Tim Penny for governor. Penny recently bolted from the Democratic Party to campaign as an independent -- a move that certainly hasn't hurt him, and in fact might account for his instant front-runner status.
No single factor or place can explain why America's political parties are so close to parity. In some places, one party or the other seems more dominant than ever. In the 1990s, California moved toward the Democrats, while in Texas, Republicans were sweeping the board. In 2000, these disparate pieces fell into place to produce an almost perfect tie nationally.
That election showed a nation divided male against female; urban against rural; gun owners against non-gun owners; regular churchgoers against irregular churchgoers. But Minnesota helps explain that a fifty-fifty America is not the result of party strength as much as party weakness. What has happened here is typical of what has occurred elsewhere across the country, just in more vivid hues.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have a clear majority in Minnesota because neither party is successfully appealing to the majority -- a diagnosis that could apply to other states. Instead, strategists try to build winning coalitions from relatively narrow interest groups -- a few percent here and there. The parties draw their energy from the extreme wings, left and right.
Either they can't, or won't, make a bold new appeal to the Dan Davilas of the world.
The result, so far, is an ever-growing middle, untethered, restlessly seeking candidates with whom it can connect. In many states, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate is "independent" or "decline to state."
Here, as elsewhere, the deciding votes belong to cultural moderates, voters for whom personal appeal means everything; party label means nothing. In fact, in Minnesota, this group is large enough to choose None of the Above. If Penny is elected governor in November, he will be the second independent in a row elected to the state's highest office. Incumbent Jesse Ventura, who has opted out of this year's race, trounced the two traditional parties in 1998.
Anoka was not only at the heart of Ventura Country, it provides clues to the future of politics all across America.
A Changing State
For about 40 years, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, Minnesota was the heartland of Democratic liberalism. In 1948, the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, electrified the Democratic convention with a speech on civil rights, and 20 years later Humphrey came within a few votes of winning the presidency.
A Minnesotan was on the Democratic presidential ticket in five of the six elections from 1964 to 1984 -- the year Humphrey's protege, Walter F. Mondale, ran against President Ronald Reagan. In the face of an epoch landslide, Minnesota was the only state Mondale carried (along with the District of Columbia).
So it was a bit of a surprise that Democrat Al Gore, in the 2000 election, carried Minnesota by a scant 60,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast. Gore's percentage of the overall electorate was actually smaller in Minnesota than it was nationwide.
"This is not your father's Oldsmobile," says political scientist Steven E. Schier of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
What changed? One way of putting it is that the state grew, but the parties didn't. Since 1980, Schier explains, the Twin City suburbs have doubled in size. The influx was mostly "high-education, high-income" and did not fit simply into the old coalition of what is known, in Minnesota, as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL.
"Imagine a suburbanite," the professor offers over a cup of soup at the Ole House cafe, where the breakfast rolls are as rich as plutonium. "This person might be the child of DFLers from the 1930s and '40s. The parents see government as a safety net."
Schier continues: "This person, though, sees his or her family as almost a small business, involving logistics and investments and training and so forth. The government can help the business in some ways and hurt it in others." Thus, Schier says, "they are open to the right candidate from either party."
Standing on the midway of the Anoka fair as twilight settles is the embodiment of Schier's imagination. His name is Mitch Johnson. He is 32 and has a wife and two kids, ages 4 and 2. He owns a construction business but clearly he is not a desk-bound boss -- his wristwatch is speckled with paint. Johnson grew up among Democrats, but he says he is "a little more independent thinker myself." In 1998 he voted for Ventura, and in 2000 he voted for George W. Bush.
Party appeals move him not a bit, he says. He is interested in results. "I understand there are taxes that need to be paid, and I would be glad to pay them for a quality of life," Johnson says. His problem with the party politicians is that they don't deliver. His principal daily experience with the political system takes the form of a nightmarish commute on inadequate highways. "Politicians," he says, "are always letting you down."
Voters like Johnson have made Anoka County fertile ground for any candidate who is able to forge an image of independence, authenticity and common sense. In 1990, Anoka went for one of the most liberal politicians in America, sending Democrat Paul D. Wellstone to the Senate. Four years later, the county went just as heavily for a staunch conservative Senate candidate, Republican Rod Grams.
"There is an immense impatience in Minnesota with talking heads standing up and saying nothing," explains Myron Orfield, an expert on demographics and voting patterns. Instead, voters are looking for "someone real."
"Reality is an oasis in modern politics," Orfield says.
Wouldn't it make sense, Schier is asked, for the Democrats and the Republicans to try to broaden their parties, to find themes and issues that draw in a majority that transcends specific candidates?
He barks one of his frequent laughs. "The only thing standing in the way of Republican progress here is the Republican Party," Schier says. Ditto for the Democrats. "There is nothing in the activists of the DFL or the GOP that would change this process."
Party Switchers, Dropouts
Sheila Kiscaden is a state senator from Rochester, Minn., home of the famed Mayo Clinic. She considers herself a part of what she calls the "sensible center" -- in favor of abortion rights, willing to support government programs that enhance the quality of life, a friend to the environment, a patriot.
For 10 years in the legislature, Kiscaden was a Republican. But this year, with her district redrawn to include some rural precincts, the party decided she was "not conservative enough" -- especially on abortion. Instead, the Republican convention endorsed her primary challenger, in a move many observers refer to as "a purge." Now Kiscaden is running as an independent.
"Two-thirds of Minnesotans are in the center," Kiscaden explains. "As I go door to door, people are sick of the partisan wrangling. I feel the parties have gotten out of whack with the voters."
She's not the only one. Another GOP state senator, Martha Robertson, also left the party after losing its endorsement. Now Robertson is Tim Penny's running mate. Indeed, Minnesota politics is dense with party switchers and party dropouts. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman is a former Democrat. Democratic state auditor Judi Dutcher is a former Republican.
Politicians and analysts describe a cyclonic downward spiral that threatens to spin both the DFL and the Republicans farther and farther from the majority. The caucus system used by Minnesota parties to choose their candidates -- once a model of kaffee-klatsch democracy -- attracts fewer participants each year. As a result, direction of the parties has become more and more concentrated in the hands of True Believers. On the Republican side, power is held by Christian conservatives and anti-government ideologues; on the Democratic, the steering is mostly done by labor, environmentalists and aggrieved minorities.
When these factions then choose rigidly partisan candidates, they drive loosely aligned voters away from the parties. That, in turn, spells even less diversity in the caucuses, which produces even more orthodox candidates, leading to further disaffection in the middle -- and so on.
"Moderate Republicans now feel unwelcome at precinct caucuses," Kiscaden says. "I know people who used to be precinct chairmen who no longer attend. There are too few people participating and they all think alike, and they believe that people who disagree with them -- on anything -- must be the enemy."
The same problem has affected the DFL. Penny says that when he first ran for office, in 1976, more than 170 DFLers turned out for the Waseca County caucus. This year, at the same meeting, 17 people showed up.
It was this phenomenon that gave Minnesota, from 1994 to 2000, perhaps the oddest pair of senators in the country -- the far-left Wellstone and the far-right Grams. The partisan gridlock produced by this system paved the way for Ventura's sweep to victory in 1998.
The two Republicans running statewide this year -- Tim Pawlenty for governor and Coleman for Senate -- are both boyish, bushy-haired, fast-talking fellows who know how to lay down a moderate rap.
"The parties remind me of Dr. Seuss," Coleman offers over breakfast one morning. "The North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax." The two beasts butt heads one day on a vast open prairie, Coleman recalls, but rather than step to one side to make progress, "they don't move, they don't budge, and meanwhile the whole world goes on around them."
Both men had to pass certain litmus tests -- on abortion and taxes, for example -- to win their party's endorsement. And one reason Coleman is no longer a Democrat is that he could not pass that party's abortion litmus test. For the lesser-known Pawlenty, especially, his campaign's challenge will be to prove that he is not shackled to his party's interest groups.
The DFL nominee for governor, meanwhile, gives scarcely a nod to the idea of reaching out beyond his base. Instead, Roger Moe -- majority leader of the state Senate for an incredible 22 years -- describes a by-the-book campaign strategy based on accumulating slivers of the population.
In a three-way race with Pawlenty and Penny, Moe says, "it's going to take 34 or 35 points to win. It won't take 40 points. So you get ducks where the ducks are." Finding enough ducks will be a matter of "narrowcasting rather than broadcasting," targeting the "distinct, small groups" that Moe says constitute the base of the DFL.
Left out of that equation may be the folks strolling past the snow-cone stands and squirt-gun target ranges of the Anoka County Fair. "People here are independent thinkers," observes Bev Summerbell, a retired teacher smiling behind the counter of the fair's information booth. Anokans don't join parties because "they don't like to be told how to think."
She adds that a lot of people at the fair have been wearing Tim Penny buttons.
Evidence of a Trend
It's unusual, but not stunning, for a state to elect an independent governor. Ventura is one of two currently serving (the other is Angus King of Maine). It would be very unusual, however, for a state to elect two independents in a row. That would be hard to explain away as a matter of celebrity or hijinks or fluke. Penny, with the earnest demeanor of a Boy Scout in church, is no Ventura, says Schier: "You will never hear him compare himself to a D-cup bra."
Penny's strength in the governor's race instead flows from the failure of the parties, says Dean Barkley, a founder of the independent movement in Minnesota. "Our best friend is the refusal by both parties to change," he says. "They are content with low turnouts, provided their people are the ones that vote."
In fact, Penny would be the third governor in a row elected without a major party endorsement in Minnesota. (Republican Arne Carlson failed to win his party's endorsement in 1994.) They say three in a row makes a trend. And that trend, while highlighted in Minnesota, is visible nationwide. For the first time in more than 100 years, America has gone three consecutive presidential elections without anyone winning a majority of the popular vote.
Look at the crowds milling along the pathways of the Anoka County Fair -- the fleets of baby strollers, the grade-schoolers rushing ahead of their parents, the teenagers in their hip-hugging jeans, the grandparents happily shelling out for sodas and souvenirs. These families are deciding the elections in one of the most competitive states in a fifty-fifty America.
They hold the key to a majority. But the parties, it seems, aren't talking to them.