Do primary challengers help or hurt endorsed candidates?

Mike Hatch
DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch talks to delegates before getting the party's endorsement at the state convention in Rochester.
MPR file photo/Laura McCallum

Veterinarian Ford Bell said he's a better Senate candidate than the one the Democrats endorsed. He's calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and a single-payer health care system. Bell said the DFL-endorsed candidate hasn't been clear enough on those issues.

Amy Klobuchar
Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar said having a primary challenger doesn't change her campaign strategy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

That candidate, Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar, disagrees. Klobuchar says Bell first said he wouldn't run in the primary, then changed his mind, and then said if she backed his views on the war and health care, he wouldn't challenge her.

"I don't think he knows me very well if he thinks I'm going to change my positions just to avoid a political primary," Klobuchar said. "I've said from the beginning that I believe we should have universal health care, and that we need to move to affordable universal health care."

Klobuchar wants to start by providing health care for all children. On Iraq, Klobuchar supports a gradual pullout of U.S. troops, not an immediate one, and disagrees with Bell's call to end funding for the war.

Ford Bell
Senate candidate Ford Bell said Democrats have to be very clear on the issues or they won't beat Republicans.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"He called on me to agree to that, while our troops are still over there, and I'm not going to do that. If that means I go to a primary, fine," said Klobuchar. "It hasn't changed what we're doing at all."

Bell said Democrats need to be very clear on the issues, or they won't be able to beat candidates like Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy.

"For Democrats to win, we have to stop trying to run as Republican-light, or seeming like we're always responding to the Republican stands," Bell said. "We need strong stands of our own."

Bell acknowledged that some Democrats have suggested he should drop out of the race, but said he's not going away.

"The DFL party has always done better in years in which we had a contested primary, and that just makes sense," Bell said.

In the governor's race, endorsed DFL candidate Mike Hatch faces a primary challenge from state Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. Attorney General Hatch is quite familiar with contested primaries, but he's usually been the one challenging the endorsed candidate.

Becky Lourey
Becky Lourey said she has a stronger record than Hatch on the issues.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Hatch unsuccessfully challenged endorsed Democrats twice in the 1990s, including incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich. Now, Lourey says she's a better candidate than Hatch to take on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"We need a candidate who brings passion to the issues. Passion and enthusiasm to the debate," Lourey said. "That's what's necessary to drive a strong DFL turnout in the general election, and we have to overcome the incumbent's advantage."

Lourey said after serving in the Legislature for 16 years, she has a stronger record than the attorney general on environmental legislation, abortion, gay rights and health care.

"Suing people is not the same as developing a plan, and working it and making it happen," said Lourey.

Lourey also supports higher taxes on gasoline and upper-income Minnesotans, while Hatch said he doesn't think the state needs to raise taxes.

The DFL party has always done better in years in which we had a contested primary.

For his part, Hatch said he's not running against Lourey, and is focusing on Gov. Pawlenty. When he announced former state auditor Judi Dutcher -- a Republican turned Democrat -- as his running mate, Hatch said their ticket would appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

"Both of us I think have done well in elections because I think people trust that we are fair, that we do represent the mainstream of Minnesota," Hatch said. "We can be progressive on issues, but we can be mainstream, and that's who we are."

Some political analysts say both Hatch and Klobuchar may benefit from their primary challenges, if it makes them appear more moderate to voters.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says with Lourey and Bell attacking the two from the left, Hatch and Klobuchar appear more centrist, which could help them in the general election. Jacobs said the downside is that the two have to expend money and resources on the primary that they could otherwise save for the fall.

"And one of the things I think the party-endorsed candidates have to really worry about is, if they have anything less than the kind of stellar dominance, it's just going to feed questions," Jacobs said. "If the endorsed candidate is not winning by, let's say, at least 60 percent, it's going to send a strong signal that there are problems in the base."

Hatch and Klobuchar aren't the only major party endorsed candidates at the top of the ticket with primary challenges. Gov. Pawlenty faces a challenge from business owner Sue Jeffers, who said Pawlenty isn't fiscally conservative enough.

And Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson is being challenged by political activist Pam Ellison, who calls herself the "authentic" independent.

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