Minnesota Democrats on Saturday snubbed the state’s attorney general, a longtime incumbent running for reelection, in favor of a political newbie running to her left.
Lori Swanson, who has been the purple state’s top law enforcement official since 2006, has been eyed recently by national Democrats as a potential rising star. When Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was mulling over his resignation in late 2017, her name was floated frequently as a possible replacement. (Lt. Gov. Tina Smith was ultimately named Franken’s successor in the Senate.)
Heading into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s endorsement convention in Rochester, Minnesota, on Saturday, nearly all political operatives expected Swanson to score a landslide victory. But in an unexpected turn of events, just 52 percent of convention delegates voted to back her for reelection in the first round of voting, and she fell short of the 60 percent needed to win the endorsement. Swanson’s little-known opponent, Matt Pelikan, a 36-year-old first-time candidate with hardly any legal experience, secured 47 percent of the vote.
Rather than try to court progressive delegates ahead of a second round of voting, Swanson quickly dropped out of the convention process altogether. She may still go on to the August 14 primary without the DFL’s endorsement, but offered no hints on Saturday as to what she will do. Her silence led some attendees to speculate that she might even abandon her reelection bid and run for governor. (The filing deadline for the gubernatorial race is June 5.)
After Swanson dropped out of the convention, the party endorsed Pelikan — the only Democrat left in the race — for attorney general. Speaking at the convention, Pelikan said he is running for office “because now is the time when we need strong and progressive leaders.” His top three issues, he told the crowd, are gun control, reining in the pharmaceutical industry, and anti-trust enforcement.
Pelikan has been running as a progressive, regularly criticizing President Donald Trump and blasting Swanson’s record from the left. On Saturday, he called out the attorney general for quietly withdrawing from the lawsuit against Trump’s travel ban (which she had received high praise for joining), and for being too soft on corporations when litigating consumer protection cases. He slammed the attorney general for not giving paid parental leave to all her staffers and for staying silent during the fight for marriage equality. Pelikan, who graduated law school in 2012, would be the first openly gay attorney general in Minnesota history.
The endorsement of Pelikan appeared more a reflection of the party’s dissatisfaction with Swanson and her tepid record than it was a vote of confidence in Pelikan’s ability to win an election and serve as the state’s top lawyer. With little name recognition and just a few years of legal experience under his belt, his chances of succeeding in the primary, let alone the general election, are slim.
Swanson’s path to victory was assumed to be so guaranteed that the three other Democrats who were vying for the attorney general seat dropped out of the race in February when she announced her intention to seek reelection. They were Debra Hilstrom, a Minnesota state representative; Sam Clark, a St. Paul city attorney; and Ryan Winkler, a former state representative. Each of them is more traditionally qualified for the role than Pelikan, and it is possible that the results of the convention will inspire them to renew their bids ahead of the Tuesday filing deadline.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, a lawyer and the only Republican in the race. Minnesota has had only one GOP attorney general in the last six decades; Republican Douglas Head served in that post from 1967 to 1971.