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GOP leaders talk about how they flipped a veto-proof majority in Senate

Briana Bierschbach//November 17, 2010//

GOP leaders talk about how they flipped a veto-proof majority in Senate

Briana Bierschbach//November 17, 2010//

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  “I just don’t believe [DFLers] were... prepared for the climate.”
Michael Brodkorb
Late last week, three of the principal architects of the Republicans’ Minnesota Senate takeover gathered in Sen. Amy Koch’s old office for one last time to talk about how they’d pulled it off. Next to piles of GOP election mailers and memos, Koch sat with Ben Golnik, a consultant with Golnik Strategies who was brought in after Senate GOP Chief of Staff Cullen Sheehan left to manage Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial campaign, and Michael Brodkorb, who serves as both deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota and spokesman for the caucus.

Koch’s office is one of the last remaining signs of the group’s former minority status. Koch, whose efforts as caucus election chair helped her win the majority leader spot, will soon move out of the State Office Building to a new space in the Capitol. In the soon-to-be-vacated office, they discussed “the plan” that took them from the minority to a 37-30 majority in the chamber – a feat many Capitol observers thought barely possible.

It’s clear that, despite some predictions to the contrary, Minnesota Republicans did indeed ride a tidal wave of dissatisfaction with Democrats in Washington, a factor that played a major role on election night. But it took more than that to win the majority in the state Senate, a body that featured a veto-proof DFL majority and a Republican caucus that, as Brodkorb put it, “consistently underperformed the map in elections.”

“It was a good political environment, so you had the opportunity,” Golnik said, “but I think having a plan and really executing it made the difference between winning a handful of seats and winning the majority.”

Targeting vulnerable Dems

Despite the friendly electoral climate, Senate Republicans faced one very stiff obstacle: The long-entrenched DFL Senate caucus was outraising them for the year by roughly a 4-1 margin. The GOP’s Senate Victory Fund reported receipts of about $466,000 by the pre-general campaign finance deadline on October 18, with about $278,000 left in the bank; DFLers reported raising $1.9 million, with $547,000 left on hand.

To make the most of their limited cash, Koch and her inner circle developed a list of about 15 key races where they believed there was a “realistic chance” to knock off an incumbent, and focused their efforts there. Among the targeted seats were several areas that leaned Republican but had been long held by Democrats. These included District 22, where longtime DFL Sen. Jim Vickerman retired, District 28, held by departing DFL Sen. Steve Murphy since 1992, and District 15, where Democrat Tarryl Clark opted to run against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Senate GOPers also targeted incumbent DFL senators in Republican-leaning suburbs, others who narrowly won their districts in the DFL wave years of 2006 and 2008, and senators in districts where Republicans had fielded strong, well-funded candidates. That list included Sens. Dan Skogen (10), Lisa Fobbe (16), Mary Olson (4), Rick Olseen (17), Ann Lynch (30) Sandy Rummel (53), Jim Carlson (38), Kathy Saltzman (56), Kevin Dahle (25), Leo Foley (47), John Doll (40), and Katie Sieben (57).

After recruiting candidates, Koch pushed them to hit the doors as early as April or May. Some were initially reluctant, she said, but she emphasized that the cash gap meant no GOP challenger could afford to be outworked by his or her opponent.

Shortly after the session ended, Koch brought on four field staffers who had campaign experience as well as background knowledge of the targeted incumbents and their districts: Adam Axvig, Mike Karbo, Brad Kusterman and Craig Sondag. Hiring them cost more than employing the sort of just-out-of-college field staff both parties had frequently used in the past, but Koch was hoping to get more bang for her buck.

“These guys were researched, they knew the bills and they knew the incumbents they were facing,” she said.  “That was calculated, we could have had more staffers, but we wouldn’t have had the certainty of how they would perform.”

Message discipline

From early on, Koch and the staff members were on the ground, hammering home their message on taxes, spending and the economy. “Our message was fiscal, fiscal, fiscal,” Koch said. “It was all [about] what they spent on and the tax increases that they voted for to pay for it. The economy and government spending was already on everybody’s mind, so we just took their local votes and drove it home. Our message discipline was really tight.”

In a Sept. 30 memo to Republican Senate candidates, Koch outlined the key issues they were going to use in their attack messaging.

“Every Democrat incumbent has a liberal tax-and-spend record (some worse than others),” she wrote. “Democrats have supported a pay raises for themselves, opposed cutting their own office budgets, voted for millions of dollars of pork projects….and voted for billions of dollars in new taxes and tax increases.”

Specifically, Democrats were attacked for voting for a 2007 proposal from then-Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, which increased per diem payments from $66 a day to $96 a day. They were also attacked for voting against a 2009 bill from Koch that would have reduced the postage cost allowance for legislators.

All DFLers were hit hard for voting in favor of various tax increases over the years, and much was also made of their votes for the 2010 bonding bill. Republican mail pieces highlighted “pork projects” in the bonding package, such as a gorilla exhibit and concert hall in St. Paul, the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall, the Walker Sculpture Garden and a roller skating rink in Roseville.

For the first time, the caucus also used its small pot of money to deliver that message through cable television buys.  In the top targeted races, the GOP bought 10 to 14 days of radio and cable television buys at “saturation” levels that ranged from $5,000 to $18,000 per race. It was the first time the Senate GOP caucus poured money into cable television buys, Golnik said, acknowledging that the stratagem was “a page out of the DFL’s book.” Senate Democrats first invested in cable buys in 2006.

Senate Republicans also shopped out work on mailers for the first time, doing five to six mail pieces in each targeted district. The team went with an outside company – Targeted Creative Communications out of Virginia – to produce the mailers, which were all done in-house before. The mail pieces were all negative, Golnik said.  “That’s Politics 101. Democrats started out with positive mail pieces, and those messages just don’t stick.”

Many of the Republican attack pieces followed the same themes. One widely used graphic pictured the state of Minnesota submerged inside a fish bowl with the incumbent’s photo clipped to the tank, suggesting that they helped put the economy underwater. Other common visual motifs: life preservers made of dollar bills and failing report cards.

The strategy of pouring all their resources into attacks on vulnerable DFLers involved a gamble: It meant leaving GOP incumbents to fend for themselves. The GOP invested small sums in just two already-Republican districts, including the open seat in Senate District 12, where Sen. Paul Koering had gone down to former House Rep. Paul Gazelka in the primary.

After losing the primary, Koering shook up the race by entering the general election as a write-in candidate. With two Republicans and Constitutional candidate Steve Park in the mix, some GOP strategists worried that DFLer Taylor Stevenson might sneak through to a win in the conservative district. The Republicans invested in mailers and staff time in the area, and despite about 3,000 write-ins, Gazelka still won with 52 percent of the vote.

Republicans also worked to protect Sen. Joe Gimse in District 13. Democrats, still sore from Gimse’s 2006 defeat of Senate Majority leader Dean Johnson, put out attack mailers against Gimse. Republicans helped door knock and attacked his opponent, Larry Rice, saying he was too liberal for the district. Gimse was ultimately victorious.

“If we were going to play this far afield, incumbents had to step up and protect their districts,” Koch said. “We had to take a calculated risk there.”


Despite Republican boasts during election season that the majority was within reach, there were few Democrats who conceded that was possible. Most believed the DFL would lose half a dozen or more seats, but not the majority.

“There is no question that Democrats are running uphill this year, but the hill got a little less steep in the last few weeks,” Senate elections staffer Mike Kennedy told Capitol Report in late October. “I’m not convinced that the Tea Party and voter anger are going to be a huge factor. That’s certainly not what our local candidates are finding at the doors.”

There was also the money factor. It’s still unclear exactly how much DFL cash got poured into Senate races in the final weeks – and how much may have been funneled to the state DFL Party to help with the governor’s race – but GOP operatives who were on the ground say they didn’t feel a major push, especially in districts where Republicans ran cable ads (Foley and Rummel’s districts) and Democrats did not.  The DFL spent heavily on incumbent Sens. Kathy Saltzman, Ann Lynch, Lisa Fobbe and Jim Carlson, but lost each of those seats.

Golnik estimated that DFLers spent about $500,000 on cable ad buys in 2006. This year, his calculations put the party’s buys between $150,000 and $175,000, or less than twice as much as the GOP’s $100,000, he said. “We always said, ‘Hey if we were outspent two to one and not 10 to one, then we knew we were in the hunt,” Golnik said.

Brodkorb predicts that year-end campaign finance reports will show Democrats with a sizable amount of cash on hand. “I just don’t think they were mapping and prepared for the climate,” he said. Brodkorb also said the DFL underestimated the influence of the national wave, and tried to localize the races. “We watched as the Democrats nationalized the race in ‘06 and ‘08,” he said. “This year it was our chance.”

Koch said the Democrats’ message was “disparate,” targeting small, “nit-picky” issues instead of sticking with larger themes. In some cases, DFLers tried to use the national GOP wave to their advantage. In the Senate District 17 race, Democrats sought to defend incumbent Sen. Rick Olseen while at the same time exploiting the national anti-incumbent sentiment. In lit pieces, the Democrats would refer to Sean Nienow, Olseen’s Republican challenger, as a senator. Nienow served in the Senate until 2006.

“They tried to make him look like the returning senator and ignored the fact that Rick Olseen had been serving for the last four years,” Koch said. “That strategy obviously didn’t work out for them.”

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