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Wellstone's Revenge: How Minnesota Democrats Took Their State Back

Minnesota's once-woebegone progressives have quietly crafted a road map for turning state capitols blue.

It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and nearly 50 of Minnesota's most powerful businessmen and Republican operatives met for lunch at the Town and Country Club, overlooking the Mississippi River in western St. Paul. They had gathered at the invitation of Tom Rosen, who runs the nation's fifth-largest beef-processing company, and Stan Hubbard, the billionaire media magnate who pioneered satellite television. Over Caesar salad and tomato-basil soup, Rosen, Hubbard, and their friends bemoaned the direction of their state. As one after another rose to speak, the tone was one of outrage and incredulity: "It's time we coordinate." "It's time we stand up and do something." "We're getting chewed up!"

How far has the GOP fallen from the days when Minnesota was Karl Rove's prime example for the cascade of blue states poised to turn red and create a permanent Republican majority? A decade ago, Tim Pawlenty was governor, Norm Coleman had replaced the late Paul Wellstone in the US Senate, and Rove was touting Minnesota—which hadn't voted for a Republican president in 37 years—as a battleground state. Today, Democrats control the state Legislature. They hold both US Senate seats, five of the state's eight congressional seats, and every constitutional office—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor. In November, they defeated ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage and enact restrictive voter ID rules. And to top it all off, Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party torchbearer under investigation for ethics violations, announced in May that she would not seek reelection. "If you look at the history of our party since 1944, we're at the apex of our political power," gushes Ken Martin, the chairman of what in Minnesota is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.

"[Wisconsin's] talking about transvaginal ultra-sounds and all that shit," says one Minnesota activist. "We're talking about raising taxes on the rich."

They've not been shy about using that power. Last spring, Gov. Mark Dayton signed bills legalizing gay marriage, creating Minnesota's Obamacare health insurance exchange, allowing public colleges to freeze tuition, and investing $174 million into pre-K and all-day kindergarten. Dayton and his Democratic colleagues erased a $627 million budget deficit by hiking taxes on smokers, car rentals, and the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans. At the same time, they cut property taxes for middle-class families. It was the most liberal legislative session anyone could remember—and a nightmare for the guests at Rosen and Hubbard's luncheon. "It was a big wake-up call," Hubbard told me in June at his St. Paul office, where a framed letter from Ronald Reagan hangs next to a replica of the Declaration of Independence.

Minnesota's liberal revival may seem like an outlier considering the conservative resurgence in state capitols. Two decades ago, Republicans had one-party control in just three states, while Democrats ran the show in 18. But today 31 states have GOP governors, and in 24 of those, Republicans control both branches of government, compared to 13 for the Democrats. Right next door to Minnesota, Wisconsin is a particularly vivid example: In a onetime bastion of progressivism, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature have targeted unions and public servants, shuttered abortion clinics, and passed a rigid voter ID law. "They're talking about transvaginal ultrasounds and all that shit," says Denise Cardinal, a Minnesota operative who runs the ProgressNow network of liberal advocacy groups. "We're talking about raising taxes on the rich and paying back our school debt." For that Minnesotans can thank—or blame—a small, press-shy circle of operatives, activists, donors, and party leaders who have built a political machine that chugs year-round to elect Democratic candidates and pass progressive policies. It is fueled by big unions and wealthy donors, the best data in the business, and an unusual level of collaboration among organizations that have very different priorities. Their strategy has created a road map for Democrats from Concord to Santa Fe. "The next phase for the progressive movement has to be taking our states back," says Jeff Blodgett, a 30-year veteran of Minnesota politics who was the Obama campaign's state director in 2008 and 2012.

This is the story of how that happened—for now—in Minnesota. And it begins in the worst imaginable way.

2002-04: It Can't End Like This

Blodgett began the longest day of his life feeling like a winner. The date was Octo­ber 25, 2002. In 12 days, Minnesotans were poised to send Blodgett's boss, Paul Wellstone, to Washington for a third term. No one, save maybe the senator himself, wanted a Wellstone win like Blodgett did.

The two men met at Carleton College in 1979 when Blodgett was a student in Wellstone's Poli Sci 10 course. More than a decade later, after Wellstone had traded the campus for the campaign trail, he hired Blodgett to manage his quixotic, shoestring bid for the US Senate. Against the odds, and thanks in part to an early version of the data-centric, get-out-the-vote-focused campaigning that later took Barack Obama to the White House, Wellstone won. The organizer-turned-senator became a liberal icon; Blodgett was his flinty, soft-spoken protégé, a wunderkind later nicknamed the "Yoda of Minnesota politics."

Blodgett steered Wellstone to victory again in 1996, and almost six years later, as the senator, his wife, Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers boarded a Beechcraft King Air A100 to attend a funeral, Blodgett set his mind to the day ahead—a debate in Duluth, a rally with actor Josh Hartnett in St. Paul. But the Beechcraft never arrived, crashing south of Eveleth and killing everyone on board.

Blodgett was shattered. He pulled himself together enough to recruit former Vice President Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone's place, but Norm Coleman, a onetime campus radical turned Republican rising star and Rove acolyte, eked out a 2-point win. After the election Blodgett was unemployed and adrift. He turned over the same thought in his head: It can't end like this. "If we didn't have Paul and Sheila around," he recalled some years later, "we had to figure out the next best thing."

The next best thing became Wellstone Action, an organization conceived by Blodgett to train candidates, campaign managers, and activists to win elections the "Wellstone way"—promising bold policy ideas, investing heavily in grassroots organizing, and forging diverse coalitions. In May 2003, Wellstone Action held its first Camp Wellstone, a two-and-a-half-day crash course in campaigns and elections, and in the ensuing years 55,000 people would graduate from these trainings. Of the 112 DFL lawmakers elected to the Legislature last year, 40 were Camp Wellstone alums. US Rep. Tim Walz and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie graduated from the same Camp Wellstone class in 2005.

In a way, Blodgett had kept Wellstone's spirit alive, bottling up his teachings and tactics and spreading them far and wide. He didn't know it then, but the groundwork for Minnesota's progressive comeback was being laid.

WellsTone's Web

Breaking down the cadre of organizers, operatives, and politicians nurtured by the late senator's grassroots machine. —Zaineb Mohammed

Wellstone's Web

Josh Syrjamaki, Blodgett's earnest young deputy on the 2002 campaign, was also looking for a way to carry on Wellstone's legacy. Raised by a single mom, he met Wellstone at the state fair and signed up for an internship on the spot, rising to become Wellstone's point man for key supporters, including farmers and veterans. The year after Wellstone's death, he took a job with the United Steelworkers as the union, along with other liberal groups, put all it had into defeating George W. Bush's reelection bid via a $145 million get-out-the-vote operation, America Coming Together. Built outside the Democratic Party apparatus after the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned unlimited soft money contributions to political parties, ACT was envisioned as a full-time machine, a complement to campaign operations that go poof after Election Day. If campaigns were tents—built in a hurry, lived in for a while, then folded up and packed away—ACT was going to be a house.

In the end, ACT, too, folded after failing to send John Kerry to the White House. But Syrjamaki and his boss at the Steelworkers, a taciturn former steel mill worker named David Foster, clung to the idea. The DFL had been bogged down by its grueling nomination process, which often left Democrats battling until the August primaries, while Republicans had all summer to get a head start. And with Wellstone gone, the progressive machine he'd built "just disappeared," Syrjamaki says.

They turned to Jim Farrell, the spokesman on Wellstone's 2002 campaign, who had since gone toe-to-toe with the Terminator—fighting a series of anti-union ballot measures backed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Deploying a fusillade of attack ads and a corps of motivated volunteers, the Alliance for a Better California, where Farrell was a senior adviser, had prevailed over a powerful governor and tons of corporate cash. With an eye on the 2006 governor's race, Syrjamaki and Foster wanted to replicate Farrell's strategy to bloody up Tim Pawlenty while the Democrats hashed out their choice. In late 2005, Foster filed papers creating the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM).

The message was simple: Conservatives didn't have any special secrets. They just played the game better.

With Foster guiding Minnesota's new progressive attack dog, Syrjamaki took the lead organizing the boots on the ground via the state chapter of America Votes, an umbrella organization through which advocacy groups could share data, plot strategy, and harness their money and grassroots muscle for elections and issue campaigns.

Minnesota progressives had tried teaming up before, forming pop-up groups and loose alliances, but usually those efforts fizzled. "It would end up being more expensive and less effective," says Jon Grebner of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. But America Votes and ABM would end up getting traction—thanks, in good part, to a key new ingredient: money.

2005-07: Alida's Awakening

When she was five years old, Alida Messinger was told by her father that she needed three piggy banks: one for savings, another for spending, and a third for giving away. John D. Rockefeller III knew a thing or two about money: His grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men to ever walk the earth.

Since the age of 21, Messinger has given away millions and millions of dollars to causes ranging from environmental conservation to reproductive health. But as she grew alarmed at the direction of her state under Pawlenty and her country under George W. Bush, Messinger began to see her wealth as a means to fight back.

Around that time, a Democratic operative named Rob Stein was jetting around the country meeting confidentially with wealthy donors and showing them a Power­Point presentation he'd titled "The Conservative Message Machine and Money Matrix." It laid out the infrastructure of the conservative movement, a web of think tanks, advocacy groups, media watchdogs, candidate recruiting efforts, legal foundations, magazines, and more. The cost to fund such a network: $400 million. "Man, that's all it took to buy the country?" was the reaction of one incredulous donor.

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Stein's message was simple: Conservatives didn't have any special secrets. They just played the game better. "I made the case that we need to get better organized," he told me, "because right now we suck." In 2005, Stein and others created the Democracy Alliance, an exclusive network of wealthy liberal donors committed to building "movement infrastructure." Messinger, who'd known Stein for years, didn't join the Democracy Alliance right away—she was more focused on Minnesota. To that end, she was intrigued by an effort in Colorado to create a state-level version of the Democracy Alliance. So she flew to Denver to meet with Al Yates and Ted Trimpa, the two strategists who'd created the Colorado donor network that backed a constellation of think tanks, candidate-training outfits, blogs, and more. Inspired and emboldened, she returned home and launched WIN Minnesota, another group of liberal donors that soon became the primary funder of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and a key bankroller of Minnesota's permanent political machine.

Messinger, now in her 60s, rarely speaks to the media and declined to be interviewed for this story. In the past decade, she has donated more than $10 million to Democratic causes, becoming a George Soros-esque bogeyman to conservatives. "It's ironic," says Brian McClung, a GOP operative who worked in Tim Pawlenty's administration. "The money of the 19th-century titans is being used to beat up on businesses." But Messinger is more than just a checkbook. She has spoken at meetings of the Committee on States, an obscure outfit that she and other donors use to share strategies for winning in the states. "They are spreading a gospel," Stein says of donors such as Messinger.

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