Dayton: Could have won re-election, but no regrets

Sen. Mark Dayton
Sen. Mark Dayton, shown speaking to the DFL state convention in Rochester last spring.
MPR File Photo/Mark Zdechlik

(AP) Sen. Mark Dayton called it quits after one term because he was afraid he might cost Democrats a Senate seat. Now, he says he thinks he would have beaten Republican Mark Kennedy.

"But if you'd give me a piece of paper, even today, and said, 'Sign here on the bottom line, and you'll be a senator for another six-year term,' I wouldn't sign it," Dayton said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office Friday.

As his fellow Democrats celebrate their return to power, Dayton was wishing them well but seemed content to walk away. By his account and others, he was never a good fit in the Senate.

"It's a very frustrating place," he said.

Many of Dayton's initiatives - such as his uphill battle to get Congress to live up to its promise to provide more money for special education - never got through the Senate.

Others, such as his amendment preventing members of Congress from getting a better prescription drug benefit than Medicare beneficiaries, passed the Senate overwhelmingly in 2003, only to be stripped out in House-Senate negotiations.

"I thought it was a typically low blow by a bunch of sewer rats, who specialize in that kind of campaign."

Former Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican who defeated Dayton in the 1982 Senate race, said that Dayton would have done better in a more bipartisan era.

"It was a lot more political than he was prepared for," Durenberger said. "He's the kind of person who probably would have fit in another time. Most of the time he was in the minority. There was always the challenge of President Bush and the Republican agenda."

Former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, a Democrat, called Dayton a good senator who had the disadvantage of being in the minority through most of his term.

"And that is hard," Mondale said, "particularly during these times when politics is so belligerent. If you're in the minority, you're like a bug on the road."

Dayton said he has no regrets leaving the Senate even though he would have been in the majority next year.

"I would be 70th in seniority if I had been re-elected," said Dayton, who began his Senate career last in seniority six years ago. "I still wouldn't be chairing a subcommittee. I'd still be on the bottom half of seniority on the committees."

Dayton, a multimillionaire department store heir, spent about $12 million of his own money to fund his winning campaign over Republican Sen. Rod Grams in 2000. But he decided he couldn't afford to self-fund another campaign, and struggled to raise money, which he said he detested.

In the summer of 2004, during a congressional recess, he closed his Washington office, saying a secret intelligence report made him fear for his staff's safety. That led to widespread criticism.

Sagging in both the polls and fundraising, Dayton announced in February of last year that he would not seek re-election, declaring, "I do not believe that I am the best candidate to lead the party to victory next year."

"I never heard a more courageous statement than that," said Mondale, for whom Dayton worked as a Senate aide in the 1970s. "He could have said, 'Well, I want to go on to other things,' but to say, in his own opinion, he wasn't the best candidate, that's a very gutsy thing to say. You don't hear that sort of talk much."

Democrat Amy Klobuchar won the DFL primary and went on to beat Kennedy by 20 points. Dayton said he thinks he would have beaten Kennedy by six points.

Even in the campaign, Kennedy and Republicans tried to make Dayton the issue, repeatedly mocking Dayton as "Amy's hero."

"I thought it was a typically low blow by a bunch of sewer rats, who specialize in that kind of campaign," Dayton said. Kennedy did not return phone messages left at his congressional office Friday.

Joseph Kunkel, a political science professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, said it's hard to say whether Dayton could have won.

"It was a good year for Democrats and Democrats in Minnesota, and Mark Kennedy was a very poor candidate as it turned out," he said. "But Dayton had been demonized as this ineffectual senator, which wasn't all that deserved. Republicans were going to make him into Senator Goofy, and he saw that coming."

Dayton said he's most proud of his vote, in October 2002, against authorizing military force in Iraq.

"I concluded that the war would weaken our national security, rather than strengthen it, and I have no doubt that my concerns were validated by where we stand today. Iraq's a disaster," he said.

But Dayton called that vote "symbolic of my situation here," noting that he was in a minority and that Congress approved the resolution.

"So if I look at what I've been able to quote/unquote accomplish here, much of what I feel best about trying to do, I've been unsuccessful," he said.

Given that frustration, Dayton said, he's tried to focus on constituent work and legislation tailored to Minnesota, such as:

-Setting up a health care hotline for people who have been denied claims by HMOs and insurance companies.

-Donating his Senate salary to fund trips by seniors to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada.

-Winning $3 million in federal funds for a Minnesota National Guard pilot program, aimed at providing soldiers with counseling and support after returning from combat.

-Securing funding for the hiring of 148 additional patrol agents for the U.S.-Canada border.

Dayton said he doesn't rule out a return to public service, although he won't run for Senate again. He said he doesn't know what he'll do next, but he hopes to stay politically active. He's offered to help out Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., if she decides to run for president.

Dayton's work on a presidential race would likely be in the low-profile way that he prefers.

"I'm not looking for a title," he said. "I'm looking to roll up my sleeves and get involved. I'd rather drive in my car from one Iowa town to another and meet with the local political leadership, have a cup of coffee."

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