ST. PAUL (AP) — Minnesota’s too-close-to-call governor’s race was headed down an unpleasantly familiar road Wednesday, with both parties girding for months of battle certain to test the patience of voters still weary from the state’s 2008 U.S. Senate recount.
The unsettled race between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer stood to affect Minnesota politics even more directly than the Norm Coleman-Al Franken standoff that limited the state to just one senator for half a year. Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would extend his term if a recount stretches into 2011, creating the potential for immense GOP power when a newly Republican-controlled Legislature returns early next year.
Dayton led in nearly final returns by about 9,000 votes out of 2.1 million cast, a margin that would trigger a recount unless the official canvass Nov. 23 widens his lead. Lawyers and political operatives, many familiar faces from the Senate recount, immediately began scrambling for advantage.
“It’s like, oh my lord, not again,” said Minneapolis resident Devin Clarkson, 28, a nonprofit case manager who backed Dayton. “It’s disheartening, and I guess it shows Minnesota has become a really divided state in its politics.”
Dayton said he saw himself as ahead but that it would be “presumptive” to declare victory. He said a recount shouldn’t be political and that voters should expect it to wrap up by late November or early December — without drawn-out litigation.
“I don’t think the people of Minnesota will stand for it. And they shouldn’t,” he said.
Emmer said in a statement he wanted to ensure “all valid votes are counted and the will of the voters is met.”
Democrats pointed out that Dayton’s lead was significantly larger than the margin that separated Franken and Coleman.
“Right now, Mark Dayton is significantly north of 8,000 votes, which to my mind looks like a landslide,” said David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney and a member of Franken’s recount team who conferred with state Democratic officials Wednesday. “Let’s remember that in 2008, you had a shift of only about 500 votes between the day after the election and the end of the process. There’s no precedent in Minnesota to think anything close to 8,000 votes could be flipped. My message is, this is not 2008.”
Republicans vowed to “turn over every stone” to help Emmer make up his deficit. With memories fresh of Coleman’s loss, GOP chairman Tony Sutton promised an aggressive fight.
“We’re not going to get rolled this time,” Sutton said. He called it unusual that Emmer trailed even as Republicans knocked off an 18-term Democratic member of Congress and took control of both houses of the Legislature, a first since state lawmakers started organizing by political parties in 1972.
“Something doesn’t smell right,” Sutton said.
Much lies in the balance. With the Republican legislative takeover, Dayton is the Democrats’ only hope of preventing likely deep cuts to state spending sought by Emmer to head off a looming budget deficit of $5.8 billion for 2011-12. If Republicans control both the legislative and executive branches, they could maximize political gain in the upcoming process by which legislative and congressional district lines get redrawn.
Some Democrats were already worried that even if Dayton ultimately prevails, Republicans can string out the process to delay his inauguration by weeks or even months — leaving Pawlenty temporarily still in office with the Republican Legislature to pursue goals long denied by Democrats.
An extended Pawlenty term could have financial ramifications for the state. In May, Pawlenty struck a deal with legislative Democrats that gave his successor until Jan. 15 to decide whether the state should accept more than $1 billion tied to the federal health care law in exchange for expanded medical coverage for the poor. Pawlenty opposed the health care bill and previously refused the money.
Dayton said Wednesday that accepting it would be one of his first acts as governor, and he believed the recount should be able to proceed quickly enough so that the next governor is sworn in on time Jan. 3.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie — a Democrat who was re-elected Tuesday night despite GOP criticisms of his handling of the Senate recount — defended the election on Wednesday, saying it was “extremely smooth” and without irregularities.
County canvassing boards will now review the election results and report to the state canvassing board on Nov. 23. If the margin after the board meets is less than half a percentage point, it would trigger an automatic recount at taxpayers’ expense. If the margin exceeds that percentage, the losing candidate could request a recount but would have to pay for it.
Ritchie said if there’s another recount, he expects it to be less emotional than the review of the 2008 U.S. Senate race, during which he received death threats.
“We, in our office, are planning to have fun in this recount this time around,” he said.
Sutton said the GOP was concerned about irregularities, including a mistake in Hennepin County that inflated overall votes.
Elections manager Rachel Smith blamed a manual error by a worker clicking the wrong button while uploading results. Smith said the county was confident its updated figures were correct.
Minneapolis resident John H. Owens Jr., a 59-year-old retired military veteran, said Wednesday he voted for Dayton but considered all three candidates “good men” who deserve a full and thorough vote count even if it takes some time. But he quickly added he hoped a recount would not bog down in trivialities.
“Just don’t start telling me that the little mark on this ballot was a millionth of an inch outside the circle so this one doesn’t count,” Owens said. “Let’s not do that again.”
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