Who’s who in House and Senate election efforts
It was supposed to be a show of electoral force, and it was: After filing for office en masse on Thursday morning, several dozen GOP lawmakers and candidates lined the back wall and spilled out the doors of a press room in the State Office Building. They eagerly addressed reporters’ questions about partisanship in St. Paul and their stance on raising taxes. Asked if they thought Republicans would preserve their majority status in the Legislature this fall, House Speaker Kurt Zellers promptly responded, “Absolutely.”
“And then some!” a new candidate shouted from the back row.
“Look at them now,” Zellers said, motioning to the long line of candidates. “They are a little bit less tan and not quite as thin as they are going to be by late September.”
“And they are going to have really good gardening ideas from visiting homes and know lots of breeds of dogs,” added Majority Leader Matt Dean.
Campaign flourishes will increasingly be the order of the day in the coming weeks, as the recruiting and campaign filing process comes to a close and door-knocking season starts in earnest. But one key to each of the four legislative caucuses’ success will lie in the efforts of a small coterie of anointed election staffers and lawmakers who are already working behind the scenes on fundraising, on-the-ground coordination and messaging.
Senate GOP ‘hungry’ to defend new majority
Historically, state Senate elections have offered little drama. Over a nearly 40-year span, the DFL held the chamber in every cycle, and by 2008, Democrats had secured a veto-proof majority.
That all changed in 2010. Senate Republicans picked up 21 seats to take the majority for the first time in the modern era of Minnesota politics. Now they are at pains to prove they can keep it.
“When you go through a cycle like the Senate did in 2010 — when nobody expected you to win and you won — there’s a lot of pride on the line to prove that it wasn’t just an anomaly,” said longtime GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who was hired by the Senate GOP just a few weeks ago to run their campaign efforts. “In the Senate, folks are hungry. They know what it’s like and they’ve tasted majority [status] and the responsibility and policy impact that go along with that. I’m encouraged by that.”
The Senate job marks a significant change of pace for Peppin, whose 25 years of campaign experience have focused on House races. As director of the Minnesota House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) from 1992 until 2002, Peppin helped recruit and elect candidates. Alongside then-Rep. Steve Sviggum, Peppin orchestrated the GOP takeover of the Minnesota House in 1998. Peppin worked in the House for 18 years in various capacities, including assistant to the speaker and majority leader and chief Republican redistricting analyst. He even married a member of the House — four-term Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers.
“It’s fewer races — I love it,” Peppin said of the Senate. “When you are dealing with a dozen [races] or thereabouts in lieu of two or three dozen, it allows you to drill down a bit deeper.”
“I’m bullish on Senate GOP chances to keep the majority,” he added. “But it will be a protracted, intense campaign season.”
Veteran Senate Victory Fund head Mike Campbell will continue as the lead fundraiser for the caucus, and Peppin will once again get the chance to run an election alongside Sviggum, who is now the Senate GOP communications director and executive assistant. “We’ve got an internal team that is battled-tested and ready,” Peppin said. “[Sviggum] has been a master political strategist for decades in Minnesota, and you can expect that he will have input on things.”
Republican senators have not yet been selected to lead campaign efforts, Sviggum said. The team that orchestrated the 2010 takeover has been all but obliterated. Former Majority Leader Amy Koch and former staffer Michael Brodkorb have both left the chamber since it was revealed they were having an affair, and Republican operative Ben Golnik has his hands full this cycle working on the congressional campaigns of state Sen. Mike Parry and U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack.
On the other side of the aisle, DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk will take the reins on election efforts this year. He’ll be assisted by campaign staffer Mike Kennedy, who has worked on caucus election campaigns for more than a decade. Before that, his resume of campaign work reads like a who’s-who of DFL movers and shakers: Roger Moe, Tim Penny, Skip Humphrey and Paul Wellstone.
Kennedy admits that it took a while to recover from the 2010 GOP takeover. “I think, like any loss, you go through the gamut of emotions, from blame to rejection,” Kennedy said. “I think we are finally to a place now, in large part helped by the opposition, of real anger. And I think that’s a good thing in the party. It’s made candidate recruitment better. It’s made it easier to raise money.”
“I think that unlike two years ago, when we had 16 freshmen to defend, now we can go on the offensive,” he continued. “And given what the Republicans have done over the last two years, I think their record is indefensible, and we are going to rail on them for it hard and repeatedly.”
Kennedy says they are focusing on 22 districts across the state, split almost evenly between rural and suburban districts. DFL Sen. Dick Cohen will continue to lead on fundraising efforts for the caucus, while Sens. Ann Rest, Terri Bonoff, Roger Reinert and Chris Eaton will round out the election team.
New faces take over House election efforts
DFL Rep. Erin Murphy still remembers the day she volunteered to take over elections for the House DFL caucus. It was a December 2010 caucus meeting in the middle of a blizzard. Still feeling the sting of losing an 87-seat majority to Republicans just months earlier, Murphy, a three-term member from St. Paul, offered her skills as a recruiter and door-knocker to lead the caucus “back to the majority,” she said.
Since that day, Murphy has been on the ground recruiting candidates across the state. “It’s been a labor of love,” Murphy said. “But I’d put more emphasis on the love part.”
She’s a bit more guarded that most in her predictions about what 2012 could bring for her caucus. “I think Minnesotans will have to decide,” she said. But she knows the message she’s trying to send once campaigns start swinging. “I think Minnesotans are going to have to decide if they want a government that actually solves problems and moves the people of Minnesota forward. They are going to have to decide if they want a Legislature that will make decisions today to give our children a better future.”
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen will work closely with Murphy on election efforts, with Rep. Steve Simon taking the lead on fundraising and Rep. Deb Hilstrom developing a door-to-door strategy. House DFLers have also hired Campaign Director Zach Rodvold to work full-time on elections.
Rodvold got his start in politics at the University of Minnesota, where he was introduced to then-U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Rodvold subsequently worked on Wellstone’s last campaign, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, campaigns for multiple progressive groups and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign team. After working in her office as a staffer, Rodvold went back to campaigning, both for President Barack Obama and congressional candidate Tarryl Clark. For the first part of the biennium, Rodvold served as the House DFL’s director of legislative and caucus services.
“I always find that I can only stay away from the campaign world for so long,” he said. “I would say I feel cautiously optimistic. The maps that came out from the courts provided a lot of unexpected opportunities for us to pick up some seats.”
On the GOP side, two-term Eden Prairie Rep. Jenifer Loon will take over the chief elections job. She has big shoes to fill: Dean, the House majority leader, held that role in 2010, a cycle that led to a 25-seat pickup in the chamber. But the job is different this time around. Republicans are now on the defensive, and Loon has new territory to get familiar with after the redistricting maps were released. Loon served on the elections committee last year. “I’m generally a pretty calm person, and you want someone with a pretty calm head working on these kinds of things,” she said.
She will be joined by Ian Marsh, head of the HRCC. Marsh assisted with elections in 2010 as the part-time political director of the House campaign committee. After the GOP takeover, Marsh was promoted to legislative director to the speaker. GOP House staffer Tom Freeman will also shift over to campaign mode. During the session, Freeman was the key staffer on both redistricting and the bonding bill. He served as a field staff director for the House GOP during the 2010 campaign.
“I feel pretty confident that we can maintain our majority and possibility increase our seats as well,” Loon said. “We have people out now knocking on doors. I’m very pleased with the caliber of candidates we’ve recruited.”