David Osmek narrowly prevailed in the state’s most contentious legislative contest
Connie Doepke carried her home turf. In the 11 precincts that Doepke currently represents in the Minnesota House, she outpolled David Osmek by a solid 833-to-582 vote margin in her bid to thwart local Republicans’ endorsed state Senate candidate.
But those precincts represent only about a third of the newly configured Senate District 33. In parts of the district that Doepke doesn’t currently represent — particularly Chanhassen and Corcoran — she got demolished. In those six precincts, Osmek picked up 756 votes, more than twice as many as Doepke.
Ultimately Osmek prevailed by just 107 votes in the state’s most contentious legislative primary contest. Osmek argues that the outcome reflects a change in the GOP base in what’s typically been considered the epicenter of country club Republicanism in Minnesota. “It was a very good indication of the fact that this district has moved more conservative,” said Osmek. “The elimination of some sections and the addition of Corcoran, Greenfield and Chanhassen lurched this district to a more conservative position.”
Veteran SD 33 GOP activist Rick Weible agrees that the election suggests a shift in political sensibility among Republicans in the district. “There is a significant realignment within SD 33,” Weible said. “There’s definitely an awakening of conservatives.”
But Osmek also benefited from an unprecedented barrage of attack mailings targeting Doepke by conservative independent groups. The Freedom Club State PAC, which typically directs its fire at DFLers, sent out nine different mailings in the district. All but two of those lit pieces were sharply critical of Doepke. It also paid for ads on cable television and a “Dump Doepke” billboard at the intersection of Highways 7 and 101. Another conservative independent group, Americans for Prosperity Minnesota, hit Doepke with a last-minute mailing linking her to President Barack Obama and suggesting that she hadn’t opposed the controversial federal health care overhaul.
“We had remarkable headwinds in this deal,” said Jonathan Aanestad, a Doepke supporter and political adviser. “We just had all these huge forces against us, people that had a lot of money and a lot of power. They brought it to bear big time on us.… We would have creamed them if it weren’t for the outside interests that came in.”
Veteran SD 33 GOP activist Randy Gilbert, who didn’t publicly support either candidate, agrees that the mailings likely altered the outcome of the contest. “107 votes is 54 people voting the other way and she wins by one,” Gilbert pointed out. “That’s a very small margin. I look at it and I say, how could you not have affected at least 54 people?
“I think that all of those mailers factored into Connie’s defeat.”
Birds and ObamaCare
Some of the attacks against Doepke were misleading, if not outright false. Freedom Club put out a series of mailings suggesting that the two-term legislator supported wasteful spending on bird habitats in foreign lands. The pieces were based on her vote in favor of a wide-ranging 2010 environmental omnibus bill that contained $10,000 in potential spending on habitat preservation. The criticism from Americans for Prosperity was based on the fact that Doepke did not sign on to a legal brief seeking to strike down the federal health care legislation.
But Doepke doesn’t ever recall being offered the opportunity to join the brief. “I have been adamantly opposed to ObamaCare from day one,” Doepke said. “I’m not in any way, shape or form a supporter of a government takeover of our health care.”
Doepke’s campaign is still mulling whether to file a campaign finance complaint over the misleading mailing. “There are some loose ends in this campaign that we’re definitely going to consider,” Aanestad said.
But Doepke’s campaign wasn’t without its own questionable gambits. It claimed the Minnesota Family Council as a supporter on its web site. But the conservative advocacy group issued a statement calling that inaccurate and criticizing Doepke for her vote in favor of expanding gambling to pay for the Vikings stadium. Similarly, Doepke’s campaign issued a mailing featuring a picture of popular 3rd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, strongly implying that he backed her campaign, even though he was supporting Osmek. Paulsen’s office issued a statement making it clear that the congressman hadn’t authorized the piece.
“I think that was a significant misstep, and ultimately I believe it hurt Doepke,” Weible said. “I would warn all candidates in the future: Don’t step on that kind of water. Make sure you have something written from somebody who is endorsing you. Otherwise you find yourself in an undefendable position.”
Osmek also points out that Doepke had her own support from independent groups, most notably the Pro Jobs Majority PAC, which has ties to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “To be perfectly blunt, I think they pretty well washed each other out,” Osmek said. “It was a very hard-fought race, and obviously the results show it.”
Repudiated by GOP activists
Doepke’s never been particularly popular with Republican activists in SD 33. When she first sought party endorsement in 2006, she lost out to John Berns. Two years later, after Berns opted not to seek re-election, Doepke again sought party backing. She failed to reach the 60 percent threshold required for endorsement, but her opponent ultimately dropped out and she was backed by acclamation. This year Doepke was repudiated by party activists in favor of Osmek, who won over 80 percent of the vote on the last endorsing ballot.
But Doepke likely would still have survived the primary if it wasn’t for the barrage of attack pieces. “They defined her,” Aanestad said. “It’s always easier to define somebody from a negative standpoint than from a positive standpoint, because it’s salacious and people pay attention to it … When you have a situation where two-thirds of the new Senate district are not familiar with your candidate, as in this case, it’s really hard to overcome the negative barrage, and it was a barrage. It was relentless.”