On Wednesday night, nine GOP candidates were seeking endorsement for three legislative seats in Senate District 33. By the close of the convention at Wayzata Middle School, only two of the challengers had been definitively eliminated, and three primary contests looked likely in the western suburban district.
State Reps. Connie Doepke and Steve Smith were both rebuffed in favor of challengers who criticized them for being too moderate. But both legislators are mulling whether to take on the endorsed candidate in a primary.
Doepke was seeking the GOP Senate endorsement to replace retiring Sen. Gen Olson. But the two-term incumbent faced two challengers from her right flank, Mound City Council member David Osmek and veteran GOP activist Bonn Clayton. In particular, Doepke faced a lot of criticism for her vote to authorize a new $975 million stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
“Delegates saw both representatives and the senator from this district vote for a Vikings stadium that included 32 separate references to the general fund,” Osmek noted. “It also uses rosy, rosy projections on the gambling revenue that we’re expecting to come in. [Delegates] saw what it was, and they weren’t willing to settle for listening to people say, ‘We have to do this.’”
‘Us against Dayton’ rejected
In addressing delegates before the vote, Doepke stressed that the Republican legislative majorities serve as a vital bulwark against DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. “He’s the most liberal governor we’ve had in this state in decades,” Doepke said. She cited the tax bills vetoed by Dayton as evidence that Republicans are serious about cutting taxes and improving the state’s business climate. “While we were doing that, our governor was unionizing day care providers,” Doepke said.
But apparently delegates weren’t swayed by that argument. Doepke trailed Osmek in every round of voting. Her fate was sealed when Clayton endorsed Osmek after the third ballot. “Please vote for Dave,” he told the delegates. Osmek then prevailed with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Smith also faced two challengers — Southwest Metro Tea Party co-founder Cindy Pugh and Minnetonka School Board member Pam Langseth. Smith’s prospects for securing the endorsement had looked grim for months. Last year he was ousted by House leaders from his post as chairman of the Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee for “personal reasons.”
Smith’s presence at the convention was perfunctory. Unlike the other contenders, he had few signs and no stickers. The 11-term incumbent spent much of the night in the back corner of the convention hall, hardly speaking with delegates. State Reps. Tom Hackbarth of Cedar and Carol McFarlane of White Bear Lake showed up to provide support. Smith tried to sway delegates with a speech that emphasized three key pieces of legislation he helped pass during his tenure at the Capitol, include a bill that provided heightened penalties for domestic abuse involving strangulation. “You have the right to be free; you have the right be safe; you also have the right to succeed,” Smith told the delegates.
But Pugh had clearly turned her supporters out. She was introduced by Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville, who praised her support for so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which Smith has opposed. “Make no mistake,” Pugh told the delegates. “This is a red district, and you deserve a principled Republican representing you.” Pugh won the endorsement with nearly 70 percent of the vote on the first ballot. Langseth finished second, with Smith a distant third, garnering less than 10 percent of the vote.No endorsement for Doepke’s House seat
In the final contest, there were three challengers to fill Doepke’s current seat: St. Bonfacius City Council member Joe Arwood, Greenfield Mayor Jerry Hertaus and college student Tyler Abens. The latter drew little support, but Arwood and Hertaus battled to a virtual dead heat on three ballots before the delegates opted for no endorsement. Arwood and Hertaus will almost certainly face each other in a GOP primary in August.
That probably won’t be the only intra-party contest on the ballot in Senate District 33. Doepke insisted after losing the endorsement vote that she hadn’t made up her mind about a primary run. “My team and I are going to be getting together in a few days and then we’ll be making a decision,” she said. “If we decide to go we’ll file on the filing date.”
But several people who have discussed the matter with Doepke are certain that she will run in the primary. Osmek didn’t wait to condemn the anticipated primary bid. “I am very disappointed that she has chosen to do that,” he said. “On the last ballot, she only garnered 19 percent of the delegation. That is a resounding rejection.”
Doepke stated that she didn’t believe her vote for a Vikings stadium made a difference in the contest, noting that most GOP legislators in the western suburbs also supported the legislation. “I voted for it for very good reasons,” Doepke said. “If I did it all over again, I’d make the same decision.”
In a flier distributed to delegates, Clayton criticized her for the vote, pointing out that the state Republican Party platform opposes spending public dollars on professional sports stadiums. “Connie’s stadium vote certainly made a big difference,” Clayton claimed after endorsing Osmek. “She’s a moderate. You just cannot characterize her any other way that’s honest.”
There could very well be a primary in House District 33A also. Despite being trounced at the convention, Smith said he is “weighing a primary run.” He was critical of the endorsement process. “The moderate-to-conservative Republican electorate, and other voters, should have the option to select a candidate and not have it decided by 88 people at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Smith said. (The vote actually took place closer to 11 p.m.)
The endorsements suggest that the district — or at least the GOP party activists in it — is leaning more conservative. The area has typically been associated with more moderate Republicans, particularly when it comes to social issues.
“The conservatives won in a moderate-Republican district,” Clayton said afterward.