CD 1 GOP will endorse Rep. Tim Walz challenger in Mankato on Saturday
It’s a bit of déjà vu for Republican activists in the state’s southernmost congressional district.
Just two years ago, delegates at the 1st Congressional District’s endorsing convention — hungry to knock off DFL Rep. Tim Walz ever since his surprise defeat of incumbent Republican Gil Gutknecht in 2006 — had to pick between state legislator Randy Demmer and former legislator and conservative stalwart Allen Quist for the party’s backing in the race. After eight rounds of balloting lasting nearly six hours, activists opted for Demmer, who lost to Walz by 5 percentage points in the November general election.
This year Quist is back and building on his 2010 run to sway delegates to support him, and he is once again facing an opponent from the ranks of the Legislature in Waseca state Sen. Mike Parry. Both candidates have been barnstorming the district leading up to Saturday’s endorsing convention in Mankato, where more than 280 delegates will again face the question of Quist versus the so-called “establishment” candidate.
This time around, Quist is out-fundraising his challenger, who has been stuck in St. Paul for most of the legislative session, while Parry is picking up endorsements from legislative colleagues and leaders of county Republican groups in the congressional district. For most GOP activists in the district, it’s anybody’s race.
“I’d be surprised if we did it in one ballot, but it could happen, and frankly, it could happen for either one of them,” said Steve Perkins, an executive board member of the Republican Party of Minnesota and a former 1st District GOP chairman. The winning candidate will need to claim 60 percent of delegates to win the endorsement. Perkins thinks the day will most likely stretch at least three or four ballots, if not more. “All I know,” he said, “is that it’s going to be a long day.”
Of the two candidates, Parry is the relative political neophyte. He won a special election in 2010 to replace former GOP Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, and before that, he served on the Waseca City Council from 2004 until 2008. Outside of politics, he’s a Godfather’s Pizza franchise owner, runs his own marketing firm and has managed several radio stations.
Parry believes one of the biggest concerns for delegates is still the economy. “Yes, it’s improving in Minnesota; some people are finding jobs,” he said. “But they’d just as soon not have to work three jobs to make ends meet.”
Delegates are also asking about electability, a factor that favors Parry. “I’m feeling good,” he said of the endorsing convention. “I’m feeling a groundswell of support when I go out and talk to people.” Parry has said he will abide by the endorsement, while Quist hasn’t said if he will bow out if he doesn’t get the party’s backing.
Parry has racked up endorsements from Republican lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, and local GOP Reps. Mike Benson, Steve Drazkowski and Rich Murray. He also has the support of heads of various county Republican groups in the area, including Olmsted County Republican Party Chairman Bruce Kaskubar and Winona Republican head Rhett Zenke.
“I’ve been impressed with his work in the Senate so far, and for me personally, he is the candidate that fits the bill,” said Benson, a freshman House member from Rochester. “He’s good on jobs, he’s good on the economy and he’s a small business guy. But whoever comes out the convention the winner, I will support them. We need to be unified to take down Walz.”
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. Quist also famously won the GOP endorsement over incumbent Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994 but lost in the primary.
In the race for delegates on Saturday, Quist says Republicans are most concerned about increased spending on the federal level. That’s the issue his campaign has revolved around. “Clearly what people bring up the most is the extraordinary federal deficit and how it is increasing rapidly,” Quist said. “People recognize that financially, we are going over a cliff, and they want someone who is committed to changing that.”
Wooing the delegates
It’s clear both candidates are eager to win over Olmsted County Republicans, who proved to be the decisive factor in the Quist/Demmer matchup. Olmsted County sends the largest number of delegates to the district-wide convention. Neither candidate is willing to divulge the number of delegates they think they have won in the area, but according to a story in the Mankato Free Press, Quist won double the delegates of Parry at the Blue Earth County Republican Convention, which sends the second-largest contingent to the endorsing convention.
Many activists, however, point to the large number of undecided delegates heading to Mankato this weekend. “We are not talking radically different types of Republicans,” said Chad Israelson, a professor at the Rochester Community and Technical College. “Both [candidates] have the credentials that most Republicans are looking for. This is going to end up being a day-of decision for a lot of people.”
Team Parry believes that dynamic helps their side. “I think that the more he gets out there and talks to people, the better he does, because I think for a lot of people he is still relatively unknown, whereas Allen Quist has been at it for two-plus years,” Parry spokesman Ben Golnik said. “If Quist hasn’t got them on his side yet, I don’t know if he will on Saturday.”
The Tea Party contingent in the district will also be a major factor in the race, sources say, with a strong presence in rural areas and in Rochester, where the Rochester Tea Party Patriots have flexed their muscle in past elections. Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul performed well in the district during caucuses earlier this year. Israelson says the group has made elections “less predictable” in the district. “That is one thing that the Tea Party has done,” he said. “They go against the grain. They keep things interesting.”
Quist considers himself a Tea Party candidate and courted the group in his 2010 campaign for the endorsement, garnering national media attention when he said the war against radical Democrats in Washington was more important than the war on terrorism. Quist is going after the Tea Party vote again this year and is known for his popularity among the ultraconservative GOP base.
In response, the Parry campaign is going after Quist for a handful of votes he made during his time in the Legislature. “Clearly Allen Quist, on the social issues, is conservative, but on fiscal issues I think Parry has a better record,” Golnik said, pointing to votes in favor of a gas tax and support for light rail and environmental projects.
“We do have a lot of support, and if you look at it, Parry has gone negative,” Quist said. “People normally do that then when they know they’re behind. His going negative speaks for itself.”
Fundraising is one area in which Quist has a clear edge over Parry, with just under $60,000 in reserves after raising $37,000 in the first three months of 2012. Much of that money came from Quist’s own pocket; he loaned his campaign $25,000 ahead of the endorsing contest. Parry, on the other hand, has $36,000 left after raising $17,000 in the first quarter.
Parry’s supporters are also cognizant of what happened at the recent 7th Congressional District endorsing convention, where freshman Republican Sen. Gretchen Hoffman took on GOP activist Lee Byberg for the endorsement. Byberg, who won the endorsement and lost to Rep. Collin Peterson in 2010, won the party’s blessing over Hoffman in one ballot, despite a sense from activists that up-and-comer Hoffman would easily sweep the convention.
“That was a lesson for everyone who just assumes the rising star is always the winner,” one GOP insider said. “When it comes down to a small group of Republicans insiders, who are generally very conservative, anything goes.”