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Dayton scatters endorsements in biggest Minn. races

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DFL Gov. Mark Dayton steered clear for many months of expressing a preference in the race for his successor. Until last week. That's when he threw his backing to state Rep. Erin Murphy. Then he went on an endorsing spree.

Responding to questions from MPR News, Dayton said he didn't plan much of a pattern with his picks in four closely watched races.

Dayton wrote in an email that his choices "are all people, whom I like, respect, and think will be excellent in the positions they are seeking." He added, "My decisions were difficult, because I very much like and respect other candidates in all three contests.  I will enthusiastically support whoever wins each of those, and other, DFL primaries."

The retiring governor's selections are, well, all over the board. And he actually endorsed in four races, not three.

In Murphy's case, Dayton went with the candidate delegates to the State DFL Party convention formally endorsed. The same with Julie Blaha, who was endorsed for state auditor and for a time last week was looking at a contested primary. The auditor's contest will put a new person in that constitutional office no matter what, with the incumbent retiring.

But Dayton bypassed endorsed DFL candidate Matt Pelikan for attorney general to back U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in the race. Dayton intends to co-host a fundraiser for Ellison this week after putting out a statement endorsing him in the five-way DFL primary -- opting for the congressman even over an official who served in Dayton's cabinet, former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.

Dayton also got involved early in the race to replace Ellison in Congress, publicly supporting first-term state Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis for the decidedly Democratic 5th District seat. She is among six DFLers in the running, including former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, whom Dayton defeated in a primary in 2010 to win the DFL nomination for governor, but is also someone he's appointed to various high-profile positions over his two terms.

It's unclear how much sway Dayton has. He's been on Minnesota's political scene since the late 1970s and won races for auditor, U.S. senator and governor along the way. (He also lost elections for U.S. Senate and governor in that span). Dayton himself bucked party endorsement twice -- in 2000 and 2010 -- on his way to fall victories.

In his email, which is more illuminating than the carefully worded statements issued by the respective campaigns, Dayton went on to explain his rationale for most of the endorsements:

  • Murphy: "I have known Erin Murphy for almost 20 years.  She hosted a fundraiser for me in her home, when I ran for the Senate in 2000.  I am now one of her constituents!  As Governor, I have worked with her on many issues, especially when she was one of the House DFL leaders.  She knows our state; she works very hard; she is progressive, principled, smart, and determined.  She is used to being underestimated!"

  • Ellison: "Keith Ellison has not only been an excellent congressman, but also become a national Democratic Party leader.  I was extremely impressed with how he handled himself in the 2016 Democratic presidential contest.  He supported Senator Sanders; yet he didn't vilify Secretary Clinton and supported her after she won the nomination.  I believe he will be a very proactive, assertive, and effective AG."

  • Omar: "I think Ilhan Omar is a rising star in both Minnesota and national politics.  I believe she will have an impact well beyond her position as a freshman congresswoman.  Whenever she has contacted me, it has been on behalf of the often overlooked and underserved.  She has always been steadfast to her causes."

As Dayton prepares to exit the political stage, he remains popular among DFLers and has enjoyed a durable approval rating among voters in most polling.

But his lure as a campaigner for others is probably limited. Even he admits as much.

"I am always skeptical that endorsements mean much in closely competitive contests; nor should they.  Hopefully, mine won't hurt!  I will try to be helpful, when asked," Dayton wrote in the email to MPR News, mentioning his fundraiser for Ellison. "But I do not expect to play a very active role in any of the campaigns.  I have a job to do!"

Dayton's term expires when the new governor from his party or a Republican takes the oath on Jan. 7, 2019.