Patty Wetterling

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–One of two pro-choice populists is on track to become the first woman ever elected to represent Minnesota in the Senate next year.

That is the view of prominent Democrats in the state, who are placing early bets that either Amy Klobuchar, a county prosecutor, or Patty Wetterling, a citizen activist, will win the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) at the state convention in May of 2006.

In the last century, liberal parties representing the state’s farmers and laborers merged with the state’s Democratic Party, giving rise to today’s DFL Party, which serves the same function as Democratic parties in other states.

“If I had to predict who’s going to get the endorsement, I’d say it would be Amy or Patty,” DFL Chair Mike Erlandson said, adding: “Both have uniquely different strengths, and both are working very, very hard. I think they’re going to have strong campaigns.”

Two other Democrats–both male–are also running in the swing-state race that is already drawing nationwide attention as a possible indications for the outcomes of the 2006 mid-term elections. They are Kelly Doran, a wealthy real estate developer, and Ford Bell, a little-known veterinarian.

Another male Democrat, Mike Ciresi, a wealthy attorney who ran for the Senate in 2000, is also reportedly mulling a bid.

On the Republican side, Rep. Mark Kennedy of Minnesota is the clear favorite over Harold Shudlick, a retired minister.

Jack Uldrich, a writer and lecturer and former government official with a relatively low political profile, is also running as an Independent.

Competitive open-seat races–especially those in “purple states” like Minnesota–often provide tips on the national mood because the forces of incumbency aren’t pulling voters toward one party or another, said Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

National Party Steers Clear

Unlike the national GOP, which has coalesced around Kennedy, officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party’s national fundraising arm in Washington, D.C., have steered clear of a race they regard as one of the party’s prime opportunities.

Amy Klobuchar

Although pro-choice activists were angered when Charles E. Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, helped clear the field for Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat who opposes abortion rights, in Pennsylvania’s Senate race earlier this year, they are content for the party to stand back for now.

“They’re both very strong,” said Ramona Oliver, spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., devoted to electing pro-choice female Democrats, referring to Klobuchar and Wetterling. “We’re going to wait and see how things percolate before we make any official decisions.”

Minnesota’s independent-minded voters elected Republicans to the governor’s office and the Senate in 2002 but backed Democratic candidates for president over George W. Bush in 2000 and in 2004. The state’s eight-member congressional delegation is evenly divided, as is control of the state legislature, where Democrats rule the state Senate and Republicans hold the majority in the state House of Representatives.

“I think both sides will consider it winnable,” said Bill Flanigan, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “It will bring in national money and generate a lot of enthusiasm and effort.”

Schier said odds were good that one of the women will win the party’s endorsement next May and perhaps the September primary. But he did note that the race is still a long way off. “They both can raise a lot of money, they have good name recognition and they have reasonable candidate skills.”

Boost Expected From Endorsement

The party’s endorsement is expected to provide an immediate boost to the recipient in the months before the state’s September 2006 primary. A late primary victory could provide the momentum needed to prevail in the November general election, shaping up as one of the most competitive of the 2006 midterm election cycle.

That the party chair is willing to lend his backing to the two women a year out from the state party convention and a year-and-a-half out from the general election is a testament to the strength of these women’s campaigns.

Wetterling and Klobuchar revved up their campaigns soon after Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton in February announced plans to retire next year. Since then, both have been traveling around the state building grassroots support, securing early endorsements and raising money.

“There are different ways to answer that,” said Flanigan, when asked which of the two women had the advantage. “The most important way is who has the best lineup of party insiders on their side . . . I’m sure one of them has more of that kind of support, but I don’t know which it is.”

Similar Profiles

Ideologically, the two women cut similar profiles. Each supports abortion rights and emphasizes affordable health care and education. Both call for fiscal responsibility, such as efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit and oppose extending additional tax cuts for the wealthy. Klobuchar declined to discuss her ideological differences with Wetterling. “Because we haven’t had any forums, it’s hard to say where we differ on the issues,” she said in a telephone interview.

Wetterling also downplayed her political differences with Klobuchar. “The brightest differences between us have less to do with ideology and much more to do with our different life experiences and perspectives,” she said via email.

Klobuchar has won two elections to serve as county prosecutor for Minneapolis and the surrounding area. Wetterling, a former math teacher, became a successful advocate for children’s issues after her son Jacob was abducted in 1989. In 2004, she won her party’s nomination to challenge Kennedy–now the likely Republican nominee for the Senate–but failed to oust him.

Both women are fairly well known in the state and have proven fund-raising prowess.

Klobuchar is a familiar surname in Minnesota, thanks to her elected office and also to her father’s byline on sports stories and columns published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Wetterling has drawn attention in the state–and the nation–for her work to enact state and federal laws requiring states to implement registries of sex offenders and community notification systems to locate abducted children.

Klobuchar has so far raised $592,000, according to the latest fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. That is roughly twice as much as the $330,000 Wetterling had raised as of March 31, according to FEC reports.

Kennedy, meanwhile, raised $560,000 in the first quarter of the year, the FEC reports indicated.

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.

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