Three credible Republican contenders are vying for endorsement next month in St. Cloud
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has long been viewed as all but invincible in 2012. Six years ago she trounced a three-term congressional incumbent by 20 percentage points, the largest margin in a U.S. Senate race in Minnesota in three decades. Klobuchar is sitting on a war chest of nearly $5 million, and opinion polls have consistently shown her with a higher approval rating than any other politician in the state.
“You look at that and you just wonder where the opening is,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. “There’s certainly no evidence in the polling that she’s vulnerable.”
For a long time the field of GOP contenders reflected that perception. The only challenger with a semi-convincing resume was former state Rep. Dan Severson, whose previous foray into statewide politics ended with a loss to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie in 2010.
But in recent weeks two more credible GOP candidates — state Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount and war veteran Pete Hegseth — have joined the race. That means three candidates will vie for support from roughly 2,200 GOP delegates when they gather in St. Cloud on May 18-19 for the state endorsing convention. All three candidates have agreed to abide by the party’s endorsement.
Hegseth has drawn the most attention, in large part because of his formidable resume. The 31-year-old Forest Lake native has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and has done graduate course work at Harvard. Hegseth did tours of duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan with the Minnesota National Guard, earning a Bronze Star for valorous service. He also gained national prominence as executive director of Vets for Freedom, a nonprofit group that advocates for continuing to pursue the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hegseth further cemented his status as the seeming front-runner this week when he announced that he had raised $160,000 in the first month of his campaign. That’s despite the fact that he was serving in Afghanistan until February and couldn’t do much to lay the groundwork for fundraising. By contrast, Severson took in less than $50,000 in 2011, even though he has been in the race since May.
‘This is the easy money’
But Duffy isn’t particularly impressed with this initial showing of fiscal might. “It doesn’t surprise me his first month of fundraising was good,” she said. “This is the easy money.”
Randy Gilbert, a GOP activist and former mayor of Long Lake, is supporting Hegseth. “Peter’s delivered on a lot of things in his young life already,” Gilbert said. But he acknowledges that Klobuchar will be a formidable target. “She doesn’t get involved in issues that are very controversial,” Gilbert said. “She doesn’t expose herself. She keeps her Achilles’ heel well buried.”
Former state Rep. Laura Brod, another Hegseth supporter, points out that Minnesota has a long history of bucking the received wisdom of Washington. Jesse Ventura, Paul Wellstone and Chip Cravaack are among the challengers in recent decades who were initially greeted with skepticism but later won office. “We have a very unpredictable electorate that gets inspired by certain candidates,” Brod said. “We have a history of individuals stepping forward in unexpected times.”
Anne Neu is Hegseth’s campaign manager. She knows something about underdog campaigns: Two years ago Neu oversaw Cravaack’s stunning triumph over 18-term incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar in the 8th Congressional District.
But if Hegseth’s candidacy has generated national attention and a significant financial jump-start, that doesn’t make him a shoo-in for the GOP endorsement. That’s because the only individuals who matter are the 2,200 delegates who will determine the outcome of the contest. No amount of money or positive press will necessarily convince GOP activists that Hegseth is the right candidate to challenge Klobuchar.
Bills endorsed by Paul
Bills will undoubtedly be a strong challenger for the endorsement. The first-term legislator was among the first elected officials in the state to back the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul. Last month the congressman from Texas endorsed Bills’ candidacy and is assisting with fundraising. According to numerous GOP insiders, Paul’s devoted followers have run a highly organized campaign this year and make up a disproportionate share of the activists elected to delegate slots. In many districts across the state, Paul supporters won a third or more of the seats at the state convention. A fundamental question is whether those individuals will back Bills en masse.
Veteran GOP strategist Gregg Peppin, who is supporting Bills, believes that Paul’s followers will be a substantial factor at the convention. He further argues that fundraising prowess is often overrated by the pundit class. “A lot of the Republicans, including the Ron Paul people, believe that this thing is going to be won by motivating people on the basis of ideas,” Peppin said. “Minnesota is home to these grass-roots political movements, whether they be on the left or the right, that can very easily give force and strength to a candidacy.”
Mike Osskopp, whose political resume includes overseeing U.S. Rep. John Kline’s campaigns in the 2nd Congressional District, is serving as campaign manager for Bills. David FitzSimmons, the outgoing GOP chairman in the 6th Congressional District, is also playing a key organizational role. The co-chairmen of Bills’ campaign are state Rep. Keith Downey and former state GOP Chairman Chris Georgacas.
Osskopp points to Bills’ background as a high school economics teacher as a potent selling point. “Over the last six years we have voted to send to Washington a lawyer, a comedian and a community organizer in an attempt to fix the economy,” Osskopp said, referring to Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and President Barack Obama. “I think it’s time we actually send an expert on economics.”
Severson cannot be overlooked either. The Sauk Rapids Republican got a nine-month jump on both Bills and Hegseth and locked down the support of many GOP activists in that time. Severson questions whether being affiliated with Paul will turn out to be a boon for Bills, noting the congressman’s unorthodox stances in supporting legalization of drugs and pooh-poohing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. “Those are things the Ron Paul people are ascribing to Kurt Bills, and I don’t know if Kurt Bills really wants to be there,” Severson said.
Severson insists that his lack of fundraising success so far shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness. He touts the work of 600 campaign volunteers and believes that the necessary money will arrive if he wins the GOP endorsement.
Despite Klobuchar’s gaudy poll numbers, Severson describes her as “vulnerable.” He cites her vote against the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Democratic-controlled Senate’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days as key talking points. “She’s voted wrong on all the issues, virtually all the issues,” Severson said. “Those are things that are going to come back to bite her.
“She’s got a voting record now, which she didn’t have the last time.”