She’s powerful. Her district is utterly safe. But to sail in November, Sen. Julianne Ortman has to get past a primary challenger
Jim Sanborn was running down the script.
The first-term Waconia City Councilman and — more recently — campaign manager for three-term Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman, has been involved in politics since his childhood, and he knows what people do and do not want to hear when political candidates and supporters come knocking on their door in June.
“Knock on the door and slowly count to five; one, two, three, four, five. If no one comes to the door, move on,” Sanborn told two Ortman supporters armed with a neighborhood maps and piles of Ortman campaign literature in the basement of the Chaska American Legion Wednesday evening. “If someone comes to the door, then you say, ‘Senator Ortman would appreciate your support on August 14.’ If they go, ‘Ooh, Senator Ortman, no no,’ then you go, ‘Sorry to bother you, thank you for your time,’ and move on.
“Last thing you want is a debate or an argument at the door. You just don’t want it. We just need to get as many votes as possible.”
Sanborn organized the campaign door-knocking and spaghetti dinner event, which drew more than a dozen supporters in the 90-degree heat and was Ortman’s third campaign event this week, following two back-to-back fundraisers on Monday and Tuesday. GOP Rep. Joe Hoppe, Senate GOP communications staffer Peter Winiecki and Carver County Commissioner Gayle Degler were all on hand to help Ortman out.
Ortman’s ramped-up campaigning seems strange on the surface. The attorney from Chanhassen is a powerful figure in her caucus as deputy majority leader and Senate Taxes chairwoman, and she serves as a Republican senator in one of the most conservative districts in the state. Some political handicappers say her new Senate District 47 — which encompasses most of the GOP stronghold of Carver County — is the safest seat for a Republican under the new redistricting maps.
But the challenge is coming from her right in Bruce Schwichtenberg, a longtime GOP activist in the area who says Ortman is not conservative enough for the ultra-conservative district she represents.
Schwichtenberg already successflly managed to block Ortman from getting the endorsement in a five-ballot contest in May, and now he’s hoping to beat her in an August primary. The winner will likely sail to victory in the general election in the district, which watchdog group Common Cause calls a Republican +24 stronghold.
Ortman is a senior administrative manager for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. She began her political career in 2000 when she was elected Carver County Commissioner, facing a five-way primary initially to get on the ballot. After the 2002 redistricting maps dropped, Ortman saw an opportunity for the newly-open Senate District 34 seat, ultimately beating John Fahey by 2 percentage points in a Senate GOP primary and crushing DFLer Kelly Shasky by nearly 30 points in the general election.
For her second race in 2006, Ortman was endorsed by the party, faced no primary challenger and defeated DFL challenger Laura Helmer by nearly 20 points.
In the minority, Ortman was a favorite of her caucus for taking the lead on tort reform proposals and for her firm stance in opposition to the federal health care law. In 2010, Ortman delivered a letter to Attorney General Lori Swanson signed by 68 Republican lawmakers who said the legislation was unconstitutional. Swanson refused their request to fight the law in court, but Ortman was suddenly viewed as a lead choice to take on the DFL attorney general in the fall election. A “Draft Senator Julianne Ortman for Minnesota Attorney General” page popped up on Facebook, but she insisted she wanted to return to the Senate.
She faced no primary challenger and beat Helmer again in 2010, this time by more than 30 points. The rest of her caucus also scored a major victory that fall: They took the majority status in the Senate chamber for the first time in nearly 40 years. Ortman was elevated to the prestigious Taxes chair, where she regularly sparred with DLF Gov. Mark Dayton over tax increases and pushed constitutional amendments that would have limited tax and spending increases at the Legislature.
Schwichtenberg, of San Francisco Township, calls Ortman a “career politician,” and says that he, by contrast, was “forced” into politics. In 2004, Schwichtenberg got in a legal dispute with the county over septic leakage into his home from his neighbor’s yard. The court eventually ruled against Schwichtenberg, but he said the process encouraged him to try and change the system. “Either you’re born into politics or there’s an issue,” he said. “For me it was an issue.”
He got involved with his local political unit as a volunteer. In that role Schwichtenberg has campaigned for nearly all the area’s politicians, and he is the person who recruited freshman Republican House Rep. Ernie Leidiger to run for office. Leidiger recently held a fundraiser for Schwichtenberg. (Schwichtenberg also counts former House member and current Carver County Board member Tom Workman as a supporter.)
He’s twice run for Carver County commissioner against James Ische and served as a floor whip for failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer during 2010′s state GOP convention.
Schwichtenberg argues that Ortman’s time in the majority has shown her true colors, and according to him, they’re not as red as the rest of Carver County.
“What was the expectation when you take the majority for the first time in 40 years? You cut,” he said. “Instead we ended up with a larger budget than we’ve had in years.”
Schwichtenberg also takes issue with Ortman’s weak position on the marriage amendment and a proposed right-to-work constitutional amendment. Given the strong support for both issues in the district, Ortman should have taken the lead, he said. Instead she backed away from right-to-work and was on “three sides of the fence” on gay marriage. “It’s about representing the views of Carver County,” he said. “Not running for your next office.”
Ortman doesn’t buy the criticism. “I think my opponent and a lot of Republicans were angry about what was going on at the federal level,” she said. “I’m not an angry Republican, I’m a conservative Republican and I have a conservative record that stands the test.”
A negative GOP-on-GOP race
The campaigns went negative immediately. At the Carver County GOP convention in May, Ortman faced off with libertarian challenger Kevin Masrud and Schwichtenberg. Following the first round of voting, Ortman gained just less than 50 percent of the vote and Masrud dropped out with less than 20 percent of the vote. Then came the fliers.
In his flier, Schwichtenberg accused Ortman of supporting expanded sales taxes and cap-and-trade and said she was a supporter of former Carver County GOP Chair Paul Zunker, who was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in March. The Ortman camp distributed a flier before the fourth ballot titled “6 Reasons to Say No to Bruce Schwichtenberg,” claiming he had filed for bankruptcy, failed to pay federal and state taxes and pointed to his expensive septic system battle in 2004. By the fifth ballot, the totals were 83 for Ortman and 72 for Schwichtenberg. It was then that Ortman’s husband, Ray, stood to make a motion to not endorse. That motion carried on a slim 77-75 vote.
Schwichtenberg says his challenge now is getting his message out, as he lacks the organizing and fundraising edge Ortman has as an incumbent. He plans to hit the district with more lit pieces pointing to her voting record, he said, and is calling on his supporters within the local party unit to help.
Ortman, on the other hand, is working to secure endorsements from key establishment GOP groups. She was endorsed this week by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and also has the backing of Voices of Conservative Women and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. She is also tapping into her vast connections in Twin Cities politics: Ortman took in several thousand dollars this week at fundraisers with Republicans like businessman Dave Minkkinen, and her boss, Hennepin County Sherriff Rich Stanek.
The race has split the district’s two House representatives. Leidiger is backing Schwichtenberg, while Hoppe is doing what he can to get Ortman reelected. Hoppe thinks Ortman is going to prevail. “I had a guy tell me yesterday that, ‘ You know, I don’t agree with her on everything, but I know when she goes down there, I know she’s going to vote the same way as me on the economy and taxes,’” Hoppe said. “From what I get from people around here, from just being at soccer games and community events, I think she’s going to be fine.”
Leidiger’s not hearing the same. “There’s a groundswell of disappointment in Julianne. I think it goes beyond what she’s done in the majority,” he said. “It’s been a groundswell that has been occurring for many years. There are a lot people that are just ready for a change.
“I was surprised during the convention,” he continued. “Here’s a 10-year incumbent and she was not able to garner the endorsement. You’ve got to wonder why that would happen.”
For Sanborn, the idea is not to get too comfortable until August 15. “I’ll be worried until the day after the election. I always say you have to run like you’re 10 points behind,” Sanborn said. “But I think she will be fine. I really do.”