Boschwitz’ downfall: an un-Minnesotan campaign’

Staff Reporter

Rudy Boschwitz’s loss to Paul Wellstone in the Senate race Tuesday was not a complete surprise. Boschwitz trailed throughout the race and never led in any media polls during this election year.
Boschwitz lost because he failed to define a message. His television and radio commercials from June through the middle of September focused on how “embarrassingly liberal” and “out of touch” Wellstone was, and concentrated on how willing he was to spend taxpayers’ money.
But Wellstone stood by his liberal record and stood by his votes for large government social programs.
While Wellstone was running television ads in which he offered explanations of why he voted against the controversial welfare bill, Boschwitz was running ads inducting Wellstone into a fictitious “Liberal Hall of Fame”.
Boschwitz’s rhetoric hit a new low Friday when he accused Wellstone of being involved in a flag-burning incident during the 1960s. Dean Alger, a political scientist who wrote a book on negative campaigns, said this statement appears to have hurt Boschwitz far more than it helped.
“The flag-burning issue served to crystallize people’s feelings that he ran a very un-Minnesotan campaign,” Alger said.
Alger said it was ironic how similar the flag-burning issue was to a letter Boschwitz sent to Wellstone in 1990 claiming that Wellstone was not raising his children in a traditional Jewish fashion. Both attacks occurred on the Friday before an election — and in both instances public reaction was highly unfavorable.
The attack ads may have worked in the beginning, as Boschwitz drew within 1 percentage point of Wellstone in a poll that came out Sept. 10. But voters seemingly became tired of Boschwitz’s negative ads, as he slipped in the polls and fell as far as 13 points behind in the days leading to the election.
Voters apparently had enough of the attacks. In the Star Tribune/KTCA citizens’ forum a week before the election, several questioners pleaded with the two candidates to refrain from the attacks. Although Boschwitz softened radio ads paid for by his own campaign, halting the attack ads proved very difficult for Boschwitz to do.
Alger said Minnesota voters rejected the negative ads in the senate race and in the congressional races, where the AFL-CIO attacked Republican Gil Gutknecht.
However, as clearly as these attack ads told Minnesotans why they shouldn’t vote for Wellstone, the ads rarely told voters why they should vote for Boschwitz.
Boschwitz failed to define a reason that voters should return him to Congress. He was vague on his positions on Medicare and Social Security funding, and he never offered concrete plans for funding for higher education.
Voters desperately wanted to know good things about Boschwitz, not bad things about Wellstone. They rarely heard what they wanted. Boschwitz served 12 years in the Senate, but this year voters scarcely heard about what Boschwitz did for Minnesota in the past.
Alger said Wellstone appealed to the concerns of the public on issues of child care and housing, while Boschwitz did not address these nearly as well.
While Boschwitz failed to show independents why they should vote for him, he also failed to rally the support of state conservatives. Boschwitz never garnered the support from the conservative right that Rod Grams or Gutknecht received.
The campus College Republicans at the University did not support Boschwitz either. A dozen College Republican members went to the state Republican Convention campaigning against Boschwitz, supporting Bert McKasy, a more conservative candidate. The support of the College Republicans can be critical when campaigns seek to build grass roots support among the party faithful.
Bill Clinton’s decisive victory in Minnesota certainly did not help Boschwitz. But with a more positive ad campaign and a stronger message, Boschwitz would likely have improved his chances to win back his old seat.