Longtime conservative stalwart Allen Quist put weeks of rumors to rest early Thursday morning at the Country Kitchen in Winona, where he officially launched his second run for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.
He joins Republican state Sen. Mike Parry in the field to unseat three-term DFL incumbent Rep. Tim Walz and brings along his reputation as a Republican spoiler. Quist, known in GOP circles for his staunch anti-abortion, religious-right views and impassioned speeches, famously won the GOP endorsement over incumbent Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994 but lost handily in the primary election. In 1998, the former state legislator again tried for the GOP nomination for governor, and last fall, he challenged former Republican Rep. Randy Demmer for the congressional endorsement in the 1st District.
Quist has been labeled everything from “divisive” and “unelectable” to a “visionary folk hero,” one longtime GOP insider said. “He’s been all of those things to people and more.” But despite his spoiler label, several GOP observers say his support should not be underestimated. Quist is known for his popularity among the ultraconservative GOP base, and he has a loyal and enthusiastic following in the district. Quist denied interview requests before his announcement.
“He has kind of been a party outsider to some extent, but he has a tremendous ground game,” said Rhett Zenke, chairman of the Winona Republicans. “He has really solid supporters at the grassroots level. He knows how to work that, so he is definitely a force to be reckoned with.”
Champion of the religious right
Quist was elected to the Minnesota House in 1982 and quickly gained fame as a state legislator for his bold, ear-bending speeches about sexual morality. He spent hours on the House floor talking about his anti-homosexuality views and sex education in the schools. He tried to shut down a counseling center for gays and lesbians at Mankato State University and made undercover forays into porn shops in Mankato. “He gave a booth-by-booth description of what he found,” DFL Rep. Don Ostrom, who defeated Quist in 1988 and 1990, told the Associated Press.
Quist resurfaced in Minnesota politics in 1994, when he successfully challenged Carlson for the Independent-Republican gubernatorial endorsement. Quist sent out attack mailers criticizing Carlson for his liberalism regarding abortion and gay rights. But he lost to Carlson in the primary, some say because of his public assertion during the campaign that men had a “genetic predisposition” to rule the household.
In 1998, Quist took a stab at the governorship again, going up against then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and sitting Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson for the GOP endorsement. At the endorsing convention, Quist and his running mate, political neophyte Dan Williams, turned in a bravura performance that saw Quist equate Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party’s role in the battle against slavery with its longtime fight against abortion.
Quist said if he were elected governor, no pro-choice candidates would be considered for a judgeship, and he would render the Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing tax dollars for abortion “null and void” via executive order, according to a 1998 City Pages story. Coleman, the obvious favorite for the endorsement, captured a predictable plurality of the vote (just more than 40 percent on the first ballot), but Quist surprised many with a strong second-place performance, garnering about 33 percent and coming in 8 points ahead of Benson.
Quist was also one of the first politicians to be critical of the state’s K-12 Profile of Learning program, which was eventually repealed by the Legislature in the early 2000s. “He has sometimes been marginalized, but he has often been a central figure in the debate about politics and policy within the Republican Party … over the last 20 years,” the GOP insider said. “After his 1994 campaign, he really had commanded the loyalty and the support of a sizable group. Some of them later left his circle of influence, but he has, through his intelligence and his political organizing strategy, maintained a following in the Republican Party.”
In his run for the GOP nomination for the 1st District last fall, Quist retooled his strategy to capture the favor of the rising Tea Party constituency. He garnered national media attention when he said the war against radical Democrats in Washington was more important than the war on terrorism, and he campaigned on preserving American freedom and sovereignty, telling delegates that President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington were plotting to join a world government.
Quist ultimately conceded the race to Demmer but not before making a strong showing among delegates. The convention went through eight rounds of balloting that lasted nearly six hours. “Even at the endorsing convention in 2010, he had a certain amount of votes … and it never wavered,” Zenke said, “not even one or two votes.”
A candidacy that should be ‘respected’
GOP insiders and local politicos say — as in the past — Quist’s role in the race should not be underestimated.
“Many of these people got active in politics years ago because of Allen, and some of these folks are still around and they are very enthusiastic about him,” said Steve Perkins, former 1st District Republican chairman and current member of the GOP executive committee, adding that he still expects one or two more candidates to jump into the race.
Former GOP-endorsed congressional candidate Brian Davis, a Mayo Clinic physician who lost to Walz in 2008, said he would be “delighted” with either Quist or Parry as a candidate. Davis, a delegate in the district, noted that redistricting could drastically change the candidate roster. Parry’s hometown of Waseca is considered a safer bet to land in the district than Quist’s St. Peter home base (although Quist now says he would likely move if his hometown landed outside of the newly drawn district lines).
Others point to the political acumen of Quist’s wife, Julie, who is a congressional staffer for Rep. Michele Bachmann and has a long resume of political organizing. Julie Quist helped start the now-defunct Edwatch, a controversial conservative education watchdog group that helped nurture Bachmann’s political career and opposed federal intervention in local education. She is also a former member of the GOP executive committee and served as the 2nd Congressional District GOP chairwoman from 1991 to 1997. In 1998, she helped run her husband’s campaign for governor.
“She is highly effective,” the GOP insider said. “She is a formidable political organizer and a tremendous asset to Allen.”
On Parry’s side is Michael Brodkorb, the head of communications in the Senate GOP caucus who stepped down from his deputy chair post with the Republican Party of Minnesota to join the campaign. Sources cite Parry’s connections to the Legislature and the wider party base through Brodkorb as strengths, as well as Parry’s general popularity among his caucus mates.
“Mike Parry is focusing on his race for Congress, and he will continue to outline how Congressman Tim Walz is out of step with southern Minnesota,” Ben Golnik, a spokesman for Perry’s congressional campaign, said after Quist’s announcement.
Quist has already signaled that he may be willing to head to a primary if he does not win the endorsement. During a visit to Rochester on Thursday, he was asked whether he would abide by the GOP endorsement and declined to say yes or no. Instead Quist responded that he wants all of the candidates in the race to agree to three conditions: They must sign the Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge stating they will not support raising taxes, commit to balancing the federal budget within six years, and agree to abide by the state GOP endorsement.
For Zenke’s part, he said he is hoping for a bit more “substance” out of Quist during this run but adds: “His candidacy needs to be respected. He has diehard supporters in this area.”