Minnesota Democrats Sing ‘Kumbaya’

Tout Tinklenberg as Candidate Who Can Oust Freshman Bachmann

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:23pm

Like a bridge over troubled water, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) knows how to lay it down.

She defeated her much-hyped Democratic opponent in 2006, child-safety advocate Patty Wetterling (D), who despite having a high profile in the state lost the race by 8 points in a landslide year for her party in the Gopher State.

This time Democrats are trying a different strategy in former Blaine Mayor Elwyn Tinklenberg (D), who won his party’s backing this weekend at the 6th district convention. Tinklenberg defeated attorney Bob Olson on the first ballot Saturday and has no competitive challengers to speak of in the Sept. 9 primary.

At the same convention two years ago, Tinklenberg lost his party’s endorsement battle to Wetterling — a decision that some Democratic activists came to regret given the former mayor’s more moderate profile and the conservative composition of the exurban district outside of the Twin Cities.

“I think it’s just a dramatic change here [compared to the 2006 convention],” Tinklenberg said in an interview Monday. “We’re coming out of this really unified. That kind of strong support, that kind of first ballot support, says the people of this 6th district are ready for a change.”

Democrats say Tinklenberg’s opposition to abortion rights, his tenure as the nonpartisan mayor of one of the largest cities in the district, and his support for gun rights make him a better sell for the district than Wetterling.

Tinklenberg said that while his name identification is “certainly not anywhere near what Patty Wetterling had,” he does consider himself more conservative than Wetterling.

“I think that while we hold many of the same values, I think it really goes to again that experience that I bring,” he said. “The fact that many of the positions that I’ve held have been positions that are nonpartisan or bipartisan or tri-partisan … I think that gives you a practical knowledge of what it takes to work with a wide range of perspectives.”

In addition to his nonpartisan tenure as mayor, Tinklenberg was also the tranportation commissioner under former Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) and is a former Methodist minister. It’s that kind of résumé that Democrats hope will position their candidate as a moderate choice in the district.

By contrast, Wetterling started out as a well-known “beloved” figure in the district, according to one Republican strategist in the state. Her compelling personal story of having her young son abducted was the best kind of candidate Democrats could have asked for, according to the strategist.

“Patty Wetterling is probably the best candidate the Democrats could have run,” the strategist said. “She’s a woman running against a woman. She’s a beloved figure. … She had unlimited amounts of funds.”

In the meantime, Republicans have attempted to call out Tinklenberg as a liberal with plenty in common with Wetterling and Democrats in Washington, D.C. Bachmann’s chief of staff, Michelle Presson, said she does not believe there is much of an ideological difference between Tinklenberg and Wetterling.

“I think that [this is a] distinction without a difference,” Presson said. “I think that he presents a lot of the same kind of policy choices for the 6th district as Patty Wetterling did.”

Nonetheless, Bachmann’s worst opponent might be herself. Throughout her first term, the former Minnesota state Senator has been haunted by gaffes made on television, radio and in print.

Most famously, Bachmann awkwardly lingered in President Bush’s presence following his 2007 State of the Union address. And in response to an economic stimulus bill, Bachmann reportedly said at a news conference that she was proud her state was the “workingest” in the country and that people in her district are “working longer hours.” She’s also made more than a couple of confusing comments to local news outlets on foreign affairs.

The 6th district Republican party vice chairman, Brad Biers, said he doesn’t hear much about those kinds of gaffes from voters, but he does expect it to be fodder for this fall’s election.

“If they have good media people, they’ll try to frame it in some way that hurts her, but I don’t know how they’ll do that at this point,” Biers said.

Tinklenberg said those kinds of incidents will not be the focus of his campaign and instead pointed to specific issues, such as Bachmann’s unwillingness to get funding for a broken bridge in her district that he said was similar to the one that collapsed near Minneapolis in August 2007.

Tinklenberg called Bachmann’s inability to seek bridge funding “the kind of extreme position that has made it impossible to attract any federal dollars for the replacement of the bridge.”

Nonetheless, it’s possible that the votes might just not be there for any Democratic nominee. While now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) won the district in her landslide victory against retiring 6th district Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) in 2006, Biers called it the best GOP district in the state.

“With the demographics, a rural mix of lightly suburban area, it tends to be the best Republican district in the state,” he said.