Progressive strategist Jeff Blodgett on the next six months, with America hanging in the balance

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on stage during a campaign rally at the Target Center on October 10, 2019 in Minneapolis. A new poll suggests Trump is struggling in Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The death toll of COVID-19 mounts, and Washington and Saint Paul are consumed with crisis management, with varying levels of competency.

Make no mistake, however, there’s an election in six months. Out of view, strategists and operatives are planning campaigns, raising money, researching their opponents and writing ads. The election season will likely be different than any we’ve seen — shorter and with less personal interaction between candidates, volunteers and voters — but the stakes have rarely been higher.

President Donald Trump’s campaign is pouring money into Minnesota, and Republicans hope he can turn the state red in a presidential race for the first time since 1972. If Trump succeeds after falling just 44,000 votes shy in 2016, the GOP will almost certainly take control of the Legislature. All 201 seats are on the ballot in November.

But they’ll have to get through Jeff Blodgett to do it. The Carleton College grad helped the late-Sen. Paul Wellstone get elected and was at his side as a senior adviser through Wellstone’s tragic death in 2002. He founded and ran Wellstone Action, a training program in grassroots advocacy whose teachers included Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, while Gov. Tim Walz was a student. Blodgett was Minnesota state director for both of President Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns and now advises WIN Minnesota and Alliance for a Better Minnesota, or ABM, which are outside groups that have helped the DFL win every statewide race for six straight election cycles.

You can always tell when someone means business with an ad campaign when they don’t send out a press release. Blodgett was a bit coy when I asked him about advertising this cycle, and particularly negative ads. “Early work can make a big difference in a presidential race,” he told me.

I only realized his meaning when I saw ABM ads while streaming some Hulu Monday and Tuesday night. 

They show Minnesotans talking into their own phones, like a video selfie, in typical settings. One guy seems like he’s in a Costco. They proceed to wallop President Donald Trump for his response to the pandemic. They are real people, talking about issues. And they emanate authenticity — that hard-to-capture and impossible-to-fake quality that Blodgett has prized since he met Wellstone. He wasn’t directly involved, but the ads show how he’s imbued his sensibility into the organization’s DNA.

I wanted to get his thoughts on this very weird election. His first comment was a shrewd one: “Everything is caveated by ‘Who knows?’ because it’s so uncertain.” 

Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and space.

Jeff Blodgett

JPC: How has politics changed or not changed since the coronavirus arrived?

JB: What doesn’t change is that we always knew that it would be dominated by the national narrative, that the presidential race and turnout and voting patterns here will be affected by that. We saw that in 2016. That’s not changed. If anything, it’s deepened.

JPC: How does that play here? 

JB: This election will turn broadly on who offers the most competent, level-headed and empathetic leadership now and into the future as we climb out of it. There’s a contrast growing between Gov. Tim Walz and his team and his governing brand of “One Minnesota,” which is in powerful contrast to Trump and (Senate Majority Leader Paul) Gazelka’s brand of dividing, and contradicting the medical profession and being combative in a time when we’re being asked to come together. That contrast will be dramatic and play out in state Senate races.   

The other assumption was always that health care would continue to be an issue in this election. It was in 2016, 2018 and it’s going to be again. They want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and throw the health care system into turmoil. [Ed. note: He’s referring to litigation supported by the Trump Administration aimed at repealing the law, sometimes known as Obamacare.] Again, another major contrast. That issue will only be elevated in terms of importance.

JPC: How does the DFL avoid a replay of 2016, when key voter blocs stayed home while Trump drew huge numbers in greater Minnesota?

 

JB: Different times. We’ll have had four years of Trump and a burning desire to see a change in the White House. The primary election showed it was all about winning. The excitement emanates from that desire more than anything else. If you look at the 2018 election in Minnesota and other key states. 2019 in Virginia. Huge turnout. A surprising result in Wisconsin recently where Democratic voters came out and stood in long lines to vote during a pandemic. If that’s not the definition of an excited base, i don’t know what is. You have our urban base voters, and then suburban women who are voting for Democrats in large numbers in opposition to Trump. Health and family safety are key issues, and in this environment you gotta believe those issues are paramount for those voters.

JPC: What concerns you?

JB: I worry about people’s perceptions of the safety and accessibility of our election, and if we make it more complicated or unsafe, then we may not have the turnout we’re hoping for and expecting. There’s a lot of pieces of the election system that have to be tweaked to make sure there’s no issues about people being able to vote. People need to be sure mail balloting can happen. There should be collection points for mail ballots. We need to make sure there’s enough election judges.

JPC: Most Minnesotans are still voting in person on Election Day. How does moving toward a mail program change your strategy and tactics?

JB: It offers an organizing opportunity, and that’s what people doing field organizing are gravitating to. It allows for conversations with voters, for finding and engaging voters who need an extra nudge, getting them to request a mail-in ballot and working all along the process until that ballot gets mailed in. It’s a digital, relational organizing. 

JPC: What role will negative campaigning play in this election?

JB: It’s important for elected leaders not to inject partisan politics into a conversation about the virus and how we react to it and what we do about it. For people working in the Tim Walz “One Minnesota” brand of governing, you communicate that message by doing it. 

That said, it’s totally appropriate to critique what is happening in real time and the mistakes being made by the Trump administration. That’s legitimate. As always, I think tone and style always matters. It’s a critique of the job. It’s OK to do that now, for some people like organizations and parties to do that.

And then at some point we’re going to have to have that conversation about what kind of country we’re going to be.