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Reeding the Tea Leaves In Minnesota’s 6th District

Physician Maureen Reed (D) has devoted a whole section of her campaign Web site to explaining how she can defeat Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in November. But the more immediate question is how she can get through a Democratic primary against state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who has been embraced by virtually all segments of the party’s establishment.

Reed, the well-connected former chairwoman of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, insists she is the only one who can beat Bachmann, which she is making her central pitch to primary voters. And she has shown a willingness to self-fund. But her determination to stay in the race, despite Clark’s institutional support and edge in name identification, is worrisome for state and national Democrats who would much rather train their attention and resources on Bachmann than see a contested primary fight drag out until August.

“For the Democrats to be kind of bludgeoning themselves in a district that is hard for them to win is doing Michele Bachmann a big favor,” said Lawrence Jacobs, the chairman of University of Minnesota’s Political Studies Department.

The 6th district race is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of top challenges to watch. Reed says she has not received any pressure to drop out of the primary, and the DCCC has stayed out of the contest. But it wouldn’t be unheard of for the national party to change its mind if the primary starts to get nasty or if it determines it’s the only way to have a shot against Bachmann.

Clark, the Minnesota Senate’s Assistant Majority Leader, won the state party’s 6th district endorsement on the first ballot on March 27. She already had won the backing of all the members of Minnesota’s Democratic Congressional delegation, Minnesota’s major labor unions and abortion-rights group EMILY’s List.

Reed dismissed the importance of Clark’s endorsements, telling Roll Call, “Endorsements are the insiders’ game.” Instead, Reed is styling herself as the political outsider.

“People are mad at folks in Washington and mad at folks in St. Paul,” she said.

The problem for Reed is that it is the party insiders and activists who are most likely to vote in a primary.

“The endorsement and the nomination processes … are driven by the political party and their rank and file,” Jacobs said. “Clark is a lifelong Democrat who’s built up these relationships with very important grass-roots organizations and the donor base. And Reed is basically trying to crash the party, and it’s a steep uphill battle for her.”

The primary is also where the turnout operations of the state party, labor unions and EMILY’s List can have the biggest effect.

As the state Democrats’ endorsed candidate, Clark will have access to the party’s voter file and will have the “benefit a large number of volunteers with the [Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party]-coordinated campaign,” DFL spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie said. Party members will be “knocking doors, canvassing, talking to reporters and putting the full weight of the party” behind Clark’s campaign, Sosanie said.

Such campaign infrastructure is expensive to create from scratch, but that is what Reed plans to do.

She said her campaign has “every expectation of being able to very successfully compete when it comes to fundraising,” which “allows you to carry out what you need to carry out.”

Clark significantly outraised Reed in the first quarter of 2010 — $507,000 to $204,000 — leaving Clark with a cash-on-hand edge of $601,000 to $435,000 at the end of March. But Reed’s campaign announced last week that she had loaned her campaign an additional $250,000 in early April.

Both women were trounced by Bachmann, who raised a mammoth $820,000 over the first three months of the year and ended the quarter with $1.5 million in cash on hand.

Either Democrat faces an uphill climb against the sophomore Republican in the suburban district north and east of the Twin Cities, which tends to favor the GOP. Despite her polarizing national persona, a poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling in December found that a majority of 6th district voters approved of Bachmann’s job performance. She led Reed by 16 points and Clark by 18 points; the margin of error was 3.7 points.

Reed’s campaign seized on that poll as evidence that she would be more competitive in a general election.

As the state Independence Party’s 2006 lieutenant governor candidate, Reed talks up her ability to appeal to independents, a group that the Democratic nominee will have to win in a district where only 43 percent of voters are registered Democrats.

Jacobs said it’s fair to assume that Reed would “probably do a bit better among independents” in a general election than Clark. And he noted that given Clark’s post in the state Senate’s Democratic leadership, Republicans will be able to seize on “legislation Democrats passed on taxes and other issues that will put her in the most liberal light possible.”

Clark’s campaign counters that she has already proved her electability, noting that she has been a consistently strong vote-getter in her state Senate district, which takes in an eastern chunk of the 6th district around St. Cloud. Spokeswoman Andrea Mokros said Clark has been conducting outreach to independents and expects her focus on kitchen-table issues will resonate with voters across the spectrum. “For us, it’s all about economics, the issues affecting people’s lives everyday,” Mokros said.

Clark supporters also said she would be best equipped to rally the Democratic base, which the party will need to turn out in force to have a chance against Bachmann.

Reed’s emphasis of her Independence Party background could also backfire, given the resentment among many Democratic loyalists of the IP’s spoiler role in past elections. In the 2006 gubernatorial race, for example, Reed’s running mate, Independence Party gubernatorial nominee Peter Hutchinson, won 6.4 percent of the vote in a race where incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) eked out a 1-point victory over Democrat Mike Hatch.

Reed is counting on Democrats’ motivation to oust Bachmann to trump all else. “The No. 1 issue is electability,” she said. “They want Michele Bachmann gone.”

“That’s the kind of the knot that Maureen Reed finds herself,” Jacobs said, “making an appeal that she can win over independents to Democrats.”

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