Few candidacies in South Dakota are as intriguing right now as Matt McGovern’s. Granted, he’s only running for the Public Utilities Commission, which some voters don’t even know exists, but he’s got a couple of things going for him.
First, he’s a McGovern. Or at least he is of late. He wasn’t always that way, as we took great pains to explain at his urging in this Sept. 5 correction:
A story that began on Page A1 of Tuesday’s edition contained incorrect information about Matt McGovern’s name. He was born Matthew David Rowen but has gone by Matt McGovern-Rowen most of his life. He legally changed his name to Matthew Rowen McGovern in 2007 and now uses the name Matt McGovern.
However he came to be called “McGovern,” that’s the name that will be on the ballot, and there are few names more recognizable in these final days before the Nov. 6 election. That’s because of the death of 90-year-old former senator and presidential nominee George McGovern, Matt’s grandfather. I’m not accusing Matt of using his grandfather’s death to boost his campaign. In fact, Matt has probably had to suspend or seriously slow down his campaigning while he mourns his grandfather’s death, which would seem to put him at a disadvantage.
But it can’t be denied that there will be some voters who recognize the McGovern name who otherwise would not have, thanks to all the George McGovern media coverage of late. And there will be others who associate positive feelings with the McGovern name — again, thanks to all the tributes to George this week — who otherwise would not have. I know it may sound strange to say that the McGovern name was not already golden in South Dakota, but let’s face it: George’s heyday was 40 years ago, so there are a lot of younger voters who don’t know much about him, and there are many older, conservative voters who despise George’s liberal brand of politics. But George McGovern’s death has neutralized both of those things to some extent. It has created a surge in name recognition among younger voters and taken the edge off the McGovern name among older voters.
The second thing I find intriguing about Matt McGovern is a commercial he’s airing on TV right now. In fact, the first time I saw it was right before the live coverage of Thursday’s prayer service for George McGovern.
Before the prayer service began, I had the TV on but was preoccupied with work and was not really paying attention to the tube. Then I heard something that immediately perked me up:
Did you know Xcel Energy pays its CEO $11 million a year, and then gives him a luxury private jet to fly around in?
I wheeled around and began watching. At that point, the screen consisted only of the words being spoken. Then Matt McGovern’s visage faded in as he said, “And you’re paying for it.”
I was hooked, and so was probably everybody else who had their TV tuned to that channel. McGovern went on to say that Xcel Energy now wants to raise our utility bills, but he’s not going to let The Man squash us little guys:
I’ll fight any rate hike that forces South Dakota families to tighten their belts just so some overpaid CEO can avoid standing in line at the airport. I’m Matt McGovern, and I’ll work for you.
I must say, that’s the most effective political advertisement by a South Dakota candidate that I’ve seen in a long time. Amid the din of ads this year — including from McGovern’s opponent, Republican Kristie Fiegen — this is the only one that has pierced the figurative wall of protection that I have built around my consciousness. This one got into my brain. The others were just noise.
And the ad must be gratifying to McGovern’s base of support in the Democratic Party, because it does what so many other Democrats fear to do. It unabashedly advocates a traditionally liberal, Democratic viewpoint that the government should step in to stop fat cats from running over the common man.
Effective campaigning is not something I had expected from Matt McGovern. I’ve always been somewhat puzzled by his political ambition, because he’s never seemed to fit the mold of a politician. In person, he’s never struck me as charismatic or even particularly friendly. When he was considering a run a couple of years ago against John Thune for a Senate seat, I thought it was laughable. Matt McGovern clearly was no match politically for the likes of John Thune.
But our own Tom Lawrence, who attended the McGovern prayer service Thursday night, said he’s been told that Matt McGovern is improving at the kind of retail politics for which George McGovern was famous.
And this all comes in a tightening race, according to Nielson Brothers Polling, which released poll results Oct. 12 that we summarized this way:
Libertarian candidate Russell Clarke appears to pull support from Republican Kristie Fiegen, narrowing her advantage over Democratic challenger Matt McGovern. Fiegen now leads by 2.1 points, with 38.6 percent of support, over McGovern’s 36.5 percent and Clarke’s 8.5 percent.
Another 16.4 percent of respondents say they are undecided. Last month, without Clarke’s name in the survey, Fiegen enjoyed a 10.5- point advantage (47.0 to 36.5 percent).
From 1957 to 1981, there were only two years that South Dakota lacked a McGovern in elected office. There’s been a three-decade drought since then. After the passage of all that time and with George McGovern now dead and about to buried, the last thing anybody would have expected is the election of another McGovern in South Dakota.
Stranger things have happened, especially in politics.