I managed to avoid political reporting until 2018, when I published a series of candidate profiles and issue pieces for OZY.
Some of my conclusions held up better than others. (Unfortunately, OZY very publicly collapsed in 2021, so none of these articles are available in digital form anymore.)
First: My story about the GOP’s efforts to maintain the Great Lakes firewall that won Donald Trump the presidency turned out to be wildly optimistic for the GOP.
Second: My take on Shri Thanedar, the bombastic, self-financing dark-horse-that-wasn’t in Michigan’s Democratic governor primary, seemed downright naive. Although I’m still not quite sure what Thanedar’s game was, it seems clear in retrospect that he didn’t know what he was getting into. One of my Democratic sources told me as much; no love lost there.
But then Thanedar won a Congressional seat in 2022, so maybe I was just early.
Third: My profile of Michigan Republican governor candidate Bill Schuette was a little closer to the mark — at least he won his primary. He lost the general by what passes for a landslide in Michigan these days, though, due in part to political deficiencies to which I frankly didn’t devote enough ink.
This is a long way of saying that I’m no one’s idea of an ace political reporter.
My most on-the-mark story was my first for OZY, a long(ish) read about former Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson‘s bid to become the Minnesota Republican Party’s nominee for governor. Johnson’s insurgent candidacy proved too much for former two-term governor Tim Pawlenty, who figured he could overwhelm a thin primary field and waltz to the nomination with the state GOP establishment’s blessing.
It wasn’t to be. Johnson won the primary by a healthy margin, likely ending for good the state executive turned bank lobbyist’s dream of holding statewide elected office in Minnesota. Johnson’s victory was instructive: he barnstormed the state and carefully cultivated the conservative grassroots, taking full advantage of Pawlenty’s tactical decision not to seek the state party endorsement at a convention dominated by right-lurching activists. Both men ran close to Trump, who remains immensely popular with Republican primary voters here, but Pawlenty’s change of heart — in 2016, he famously called Trump “unhinged” and “unfit” — wasn’t particularly convincing.
Nor was Pawlenty’s effort to establish law-and-order bona fides on immigration and public safety. Both he and Johnson called for Minnesota to suspend cooperation with the federal refugee resettlement program and blasted out ominous press releases after officer-involved shootings, presenting an apparently united front for GOP primary voters. The Pawlenty campaign’s sharp rhetoric couldn’t obscure the candidate’s decades-long reputation for compassionate conservatism, though. Johnson’s thinner, more ideologically coherent public record could well have been the difference-maker for him.
As the election drew near, I reflected on one particular item in that record. In January, per the Star Tribune, two GOP state legislators warned that Muslim-Americans might “infiltrate” party caucuses the following month. Asked directly about their comments on a conservative radio program, Johnson praised one of the legislators for raising “a huge cultural issue,” saying, “there are some here who are trying to change what America is.”
Johnson later told the Star Tribune (linked above), and reiterated in our interview, that he believes anyone with genuinely held affinity for GOP principles should be free to participate in caucuses. But his endorsement of what I’ll generously call “fearmongering” around a clearly defined out-group, followed by a handy primary victory against an opponent who managed to avoid crossing that line, makes plain fear’s effectiveness as a political motivator.
It’s always been so. We accept that the good guy needs his bogeyman, his foil, his Other. Fear is a better turnout strategy than contentment for the same reason that loss aversion is a shoddy investment strategy — we’re primed to resist uncertainty, even when our best interests dictate that we stand pat. This is human nature.
The problem with fear is it motivates some to mount total resistance to uncertainty. The utterly demoralizing events of the past two weeks — the spate of mail bombs sent to prominent left-of-center figures across the United States, the racially motivated shooting at the supermarket in Louisville, the slaughter at the synagogue in Pittsburgh — remind us that fear is a permission structure through which the unthinkable becomes possible and the unspoken becomes dogma.
Vanishingly few among us ever actualize our fear in such horrific fashion. Most never consider doing so at all; most of the rest stew without acting. And, to be clear, Johnson’s general election campaign platform was pretty unremarkable, such that no fair-minded observer could accuse it of mongering anything resembling fear. Vague unease, perhaps; not fear.
All I’ll say is this: politicians of all stripes would do well to consider the full ramifications of their rhetoric. Not merely to think before speaking, which most do quite well, but to really wrestle with the implications of the context and presentation of their policy positions, however sincerely held. Many Minnesotans who sympathize with those state legislators’ “infiltration” warning — some quietly, some not so quietly — did vote for Johnson. (And many didn’t; some didn’t bother coming out to the polls, others might vote third-party, some might even vote for Johnson’s Democratic opponent.)
Had he carried the day, Johnson could have garnered immense good will — and, perhaps, sowed the seeds of the sort of crossover strategy that’s kept blue-state Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan in office — by rejecting the politics of fear and reminding us all that we’re not as divided as we seem. A platitude, sure, but one so plainly demanded by the times.
He didn’t need to, of course. He lost the general election by more than 11 points, defying expectations of a respectable showing that would confirm Minnesota’s purplish status after a surprisingly close 2016 presidential election. Johnson’s underperformance quieted — momentarily —fears of an imminent fraying of the social consensus.
But we’re still on borrowed time.