Dayton, Emmer locked in close Minn. gov race

Published 2:13 am Wednesday, November 3, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer waited out late returns Wednesday in a race neither was ready to say he lost.

Dayton led as returns poured in throughout the night, but the margin was less than 1 percentage point with 90 percent of precincts reporting.

Emmer urged his supporters to “keep the faith” when he took the stage at about 1:30 a.m. at a GOP gathering.

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“We’re not quite done yet here in Minnesota, here in the governor’s race,” Emmer said. “We’re very encouraged. The numbers are moving in the right direction.”

Dayton appeared a few minutes later at a Minneapolis hotel to thank his supporters for “bucking a national trend.”

“I wish things were proceeding faster than they are, but that’s the nature of the process,” Dayton said. “I thank you for your patience. … I’ll write you all notes if you have to go to work tomorrow morning.”

Minnesota is no stranger to close contests. Sen. Al Franken beat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by 312 votes two years ago after a protracted recount and court case. In 2006, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty won re-election by a slim 21,000 votes.

A third-party candidate again played a critical role. The Independence Party’s Tom Horner conceded defeat after attracting about 12 percent of the vote.

No Democrat has won the office in Minnesota since 1986.

Dayton, a former senator, piled up large margins in key counties for Democrats while Emmer was running behind Pawlenty’s 2006 numbers in six suburban counties that are vital to GOP candidates running statewide.

Dayton ran on a platform of fixing a $6 billion budget problem by making people with the highest incomes pay more in taxes. Emmer, a state legislator, promised to stay the no-new-taxes course Minnesota has held for eight years under Pawlenty.

Cafeteria cashier Iona Bartelt of Afton said Dayton’s appeal for higher taxes on the rich resonated with her because “they’re not paying their fair tax.”

“Mark Dayton has always tried to help the middle class,” she said. “Even though he’s wealthy himself, he cares about the average person.”

The Dayton tax plan also influenced the vote of Corcoran’s Chris Aase — for Emmer.

Aase said he went with Emmer because he saw him as more sympathetic to the concerns of small businesses, including the eight-employee telephone company he owns.

“Everything depends on this election and how they do things,” Aase said, adding, “We’re not spending money on upgrades and things like that we should too, because we’re waiting to see how our taxes are going to be spent.”

Dayton, 63, outlasted a crowded Democratic field to make Tuesday’s ballot. It was a remarkable turnaround for a man who limped from the Senate a few years earlier after one term even he said was futile. Dayton asked voters to trust that he had better instincts for an executive role.

Emmer, 49, was the legislative bench player who used grit and heart-pumping speeches to win the Republican nomination. Emmer was raw early in his first statewide campaign, most notably when he provoked restaurant workers with comments they took as a threat to their wages. But he steadied in the final months and stuck to a message that government needed to “live within its means.”

Horner, 60, hoped his public relations expertise and his message of moderation would connect with voters turned off by the other two. He promoted an expanded sales tax as a partial fix to the deficit. Despite impressive fundraising for a third-party candidate, Horner found himself stuck in the teens in public polls.

Edina accountant Chris Wittich, a self-described Republican, went with Horner because he had too many concerns about his party’s nominee.

“Tom Horner’s ideas were generally more rational and realistic — somewhere in between all tax increases and spending cuts would be good,” Wittich said.

The three candidates had plenty of chances to get their messages out. They met in more than two dozen debates, an average of two per week.

Outside groups asserted themselves more than ever. Labor unions and liberal organizations combined to spend at least $5 million to rough up Emmer, including ads highlighting decades-old drunken-driving arrests. Groups on the right, including those financed mostly by corporate donations, aimed at Dayton’s decision to close his Senate office amid terrorism concerns and his dour self-appraisal of his single Washington term.