While most Minnesota politicos are devoting their attention to the race for the governorship this year, a smaller power battle is brewing in the state Senate. Many who frequent the Capitol halls in St. Paul predict there will be a spirited race for head of the Senate GOP caucus after the general election, a spot that is looking more desirable to Republicans given boasts within the party that the GOP has a shot at taking the majority in the chamber.
If their hopes come to fruition, that would put a Republican in charge of the body for the first time in its history. While many say current Republican Minority Leader Dave Senjem is well-liked as head of the caucus, some see the need for a more outspoken member to lead a possible majority and to take on notoriously feisty Democratic Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller.
Several names have been thrown out by Capitol hands as possible leadership material, including Sens. Geoff Michel, David Hann, Michelle Fischbach, and the most frequent mention, two-term Sen. Amy Koch. “The question becomes if [Senjem] is right to go toe-to-toe with Pogemiller,” a longtime GOP operative who wished to remain anonymous, said. “Koch would bring a much different style to the table.”
Koch has taken the lead on Senate GOP elections this year, a common step to prove one’s leadership bona fides. Koch, who is also an assistant minority leader, has recruited what she and others call an all-star class for Senate elections this year. She has been door knocking with candidates across the state, and has said she has high hopes the Senate will win the 13 seats it needs to take the majority this year.
She has been lauded by GOPers for her hard work. “The number one goal in the minority is to get in the majority, and the question has probably risen, who is responsible for getting us to where we are today?” the GOP operative said. “If they win the majority or pick up a lot of seats, people will question if it was because Senjem laid out a platform for the party to follow, or if it was because Koch picked these candidates and got them elected?” Koch declined to comment for this story.
Michel, an assistant minority leader from Edina, has been a strong voice in the caucus. He has also proven his fundraising chops. At the end of the last campaign finance reporting period, Michel reported raising more than $82,000 – a huge sum for a single legislator.
He recently used some of that cash to release the first of two 30-second television spots to air for the next three weeks in his district. The ad, titled “The Answer,” pictures Michel with his wife and daughter and highlights the espoused Republican philosophy to “reign in spending, to lower taxes and make Minnesota the best place to do business.”
Many consider the popular, two-term senator’s seat safe. Bloomington City Council member Steve Elkins is Michel’s DFL challenger. At the end of the last campaign finance reporting period, Elkins had barely $4,000 on hand. Michel’s ad buys could point to a larger leadership election strategy. Michel did not return a call seeking comment.
Hann, who was a candidate for governor, says it is “premature” to think about running for leadership while he is still in the midst of his re-election bid. “I have been involved in the leadership in the caucus in the past and I anticipate that I will continue to be involved, but haven’t made any firm decisions about what’s going to happen after the election.”
A changing caucus
There are also feelings that the Senate caucus is moving in a direction that is more conservative and combative than the two-term senator from Rochester.
Retiring Republican Sen. Steve Dille, who has served in the Legislature since 1986, said the caucus has consistently become more conservative over the last decade. He only expects it to become more so, as moderate Republicans like himself and Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R- New Ulm, are retiring this year and more conservative candidates are looking to come in.
“Slowly but surely the caucus is changing,” said Dick Day, former minority leader and senator who retired at the end of 2009 to lobby for pro-gambling group Racino Now. “There is no one, to my knowledge, that is pro-choice or pro-gay rights left in that caucus. That didn’t use to be the case.”
Day attributes some of the change to the new regime at the helm of the Republican Party of Minnesota, which he says brings its endorsements and party politics into the caucus. Michael Brodkorb, who is the deputy-chair of the party, is also the chief communications staffer for the Senate GOP caucus and is notorious for his sharp political elbows.
Day cites the case of two-term GOP Sen. Paul Koering, who not only ran unendorsed by the party this year (the GOP endorsed former state Rep. Paul Gazelka instead), but earned its ire after he dined with a gay porn star in Brainerd, Minn. Koering is openly gay. Researchers from the party dug into Koering’s Morrison County police records while doing opposition research for the primary election. Koering ultimately lost the primary to Gazelka, and is now campaigning for a write-in candidacy.
“It appears that the new regime that’s in charge of the Republican Party obviously has a different style in that they think they should do this slash and burn kind of campaign, which I don’t agree with,” Koering told Capitol Report this summer. In a recent interview, Koering said he feels like the caucus is “moving in a different direction.” “It just appears that if you’re a moderate or if you want to work with others, that is just not looked upon kindly in the caucus.”
When the story of the Republican Party digging for police records first broke in the Brainerd Dispatch, Senjem characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt.””I’m disappointed with that kind of activity [by the party],” he told the Dispatch. “I’ve known Paul for eight years. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine that Paul Koering has anything in his record that would be at all interesting. It’s probably as boring as mine. I’m simply not one to condone witch hunts.”
Sutton later told Capitol Report that he was “disappointed” in Senjem’s comments. “I understand where he wants to be supportive of a colleague in his caucus, but this is nothing new,” Sutton said.
Republican Senate leadership and the state party also clashed during session when the Minnesota GOP routed phone calls from angry constituents to Democrat’s Senate phones during the bonding bill debate. The phones are generally used by senators to communicate with colleagues or staffers.
Brodkorb and Sutton defended the calls, saying the phones are paid for by taxpayer dollars and should be accessed by the public. Senjem, along with other Republican leadership, did not know the party was going to patch calls through during a floor debate, and said they were wrong to do so.
“The caucus is more conservative than Dave Senjem,” Day said. “You can be the greatest guy in the entire world, but you better pass the litmus test of the Republican Party.”