The three women aren't as well-financed or well-known as the endorsed candidates they're challenging.
DFLer Becky Lourey is the best known of the three, having served in the Legislature for 16 years and run for governor four years ago. She's also the only one of all six candidates to report a campaign deficit. Lourey had more than $150,000 in debts in her latest campaign finance report, and about $17,000 in the bank. Despite her fundraising challenges, Lourey was as exuberant as ever at the State Fair.
"It's really, really going well," Lourey told a supporter, who promised to vote for Lourey in the primary.
Lourey said she's not worried about the money, because if she wins the DFL primary, she'll get as much as $700,000 in public campaign subsidies. She argues that she's the best Democrat to take on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in November. Lourey said she doesn't think DFL-endorsed candidate Mike Hatch can beat Pawlenty.
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"I think it's going to be difficult to beat Tim. He's very, very, very charming," Lourey said. "And I've said from the beginning, to beat Tim, you need someone who offers a sharp contrast and a clear choice. And you need someone who's not angry and who really believes in the future."
Lourey implied that Hatch is an angry candidate. Hatch, a two-term attorney general, said that's a common criticism of anyone who's served as the state's top litigator.
His first television ad tries to soften his image by showing him playing with one of his golden retrievers and walking with his wife and three daughters. It also touts his record as an AG who's taken on HMOs and big business, and ends with the phrase, "Minnesota tough making Minnesota nice."
Hatch said he's focusing on the November election, not the primary. He's largely relying on the DFL party to get out the primary vote. Hatch said he's hoarded most of his campaign money for after the primary.
"We've raised money, but as people have pointed out, the governor has raised more. So we have to be frugal. I like to think I've been very frugal; in fact, cheap," Hatch laughs.
Hatch has agreed to abide by a campaign spending limit of $2.4 million, in exchange for getting the state subsidy. Gov. Pawlenty is the first candidate for governor in Minnesota history to reject the subsidy, allowing him to spend as much as he wants. He has $2 million in the bank, and is already running his second television ad.
Pawlenty's primary challenger, Sue Jeffers, has less than $3,000 in the bank. Jeffers owns Stub and Herbs bar on the University of Minnesota campus, and has never run for office before. She knows she's viewed as a long shot to beat an incumbent governor in the primary.
"They call me the darkest of dark horses," Jeffers said. "And I just laugh when I hear it, because so many people underestimate me."
Jeffers said Republicans are upset with Pawlenty for supporting a new Twins stadium, a new fee on cigarettes, an expansion of rail and a hike in the minimum wage.
"All three of these challengers are distinct underdogs."
"I hear the conservative base is very, very angry," Jeffers said. "It's his track record. And that track record needs some explaining. He's had four years to lead us in a conservative direction, and that just hasn't happened."
Pawlenty declined interview requests to talk about Jeffers and the primary. His campaign spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor is focused on the general election. McClung said Pawlenty has the backing of the Republican Party and rank-and-file GOP voters. McClung said Pawlenty is confident he'll win the primary, and has been aggressively campaigning.
Pawlenty has the incumbent advantage of near daily news coverage and high name recognition. He has declined to participate in all but one debate. He shared the stage with Mike Hatch, Peter Hutchinson and the Green Party's Ken Pentel at Farmfest last month. None of the primary challengers was invited to participate, something that angers all of them.
Lourey, Jeffers and the Independence Party's Pam Ellison want voters to see them in debates before the primary. Ellison said the three women are formidable candidates. She describes them as "scrappy". Ellison said all three are better alternatives than the candidates they're challenging.
"I think if the three endorsed candidates are on the ballot in November, I would say we should just think about moving elsewhere. I'm serious," Ellison said, "because we cannot take another term of nominal and destructive politics in this state."
Ellison is a political activist who's been involved in the Independence Party longer than endorsed candidate Peter Hutchinson. She worked on Jesse Ventura's successful campaign for governor eight years ago. But she doesn't have the campaign resources of Hutchinson, who's raised and spent more than half-a-million dollars on staff, campaign literature, a State Fair booth and other expenses.
Hutchinson and the other IP-endorsed candidates just wrapped up a statewide tour of more than 200 communities. Hutchinson, a public policy consultant, said he doesn't think most people know Ellison is running in the primary.
"I'm not assuming there's going to be a giant turnout," Hutchinson said. "But I know now, after visiting about 35 towns all over Minnesota, if they do turn out, they're going to know that Team Minnesota, Peter Hutchinson for governor, are part of the deal."
Four years ago, fewer than 40,000 Minnesotans voted in the Independence Party primary for governor. Overall turnout was less than a fifth of eligible voters. Political science professor Joe Kunkel of Minnesota State University in Mankato said if primary turnout is extremely low this year, it's possible - but not likely - that the three challengers could win.
"It would be very surprising if Hutchinson, Pawlenty and Hatch don't all win the primary," Kunkel said. "So we don't like to say we're going to count people out, but all three of these challengers are distinct underdogs."
Kunkel said a primary challenger will occasionally defeat an endorsed candidate. But that's usually because the endorsed candidate is more to the left or the right than rank-and-file party voters. Kunkel said that's a difficult case for the primary challengers to make this year.