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Many GOP legislators are mulling congressional campaigns in 2014

Many GOP legislators are mulling congressional campaigns in 2014

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, an eight term veteran, on Tuesday joined the hunt to get the Republican Party’s nod to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken next year. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

When Republican members of the Legislature return to St. Paul next year and compare notes on what they did during the interim, a growing number will say they launched campaigns for Congress.

The last week has seen campaign announcements from three sitting Republican state legislators for U.S. Senate and the 1st and 6th Congressional Districts. And there are other Republicans legislators who have been known to be setting their sights on serving in Washington, D.C.

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, an eight-term veteran who previously served as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, on Tuesday joined the hunt to get the GOP’s nod to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken next year. His announcement came one day after his Republican caucus mate, Mike Benson from Rochester, entered the race to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the 1st Congressional District in southern Minnesota. Both of their announcements came as a surprise to many followers of Minnesota politics. Last Friday, state Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, entered the 6th Congressional District race. Pederson’s announcement was less of a surprise because he had previously created an exploratory committee.

Especially in the case of Abeler’s Senate bid, the new Washington aspirants face the challenge of running for federal seats that are substantially larger in terms of population and geography than their current legislative districts. But the Minnesota Republican Party is hampered by debt and the party’s better known figures — like Norm Coleman, Tim Pawlenty, Erik Paulsen and John Kline — are taking a pass, noted University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“The U.S. Senate race is a great example where people like Coleman and Paulsen and John Kline all refused to jump in because it was a high-risk proposition against Franken without a strong Republican Party. So I think it’s opened the door for some legislators to say: ‘Hey, I’ll take the chance,’” Jacobs said.

Abeler is joining Minneapolis businessman Mike McFadden as the lone Republicans who are formally trying to deny Franken a second term. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassan, has for months shown signs of making a run for U.S. Senate and told The Associated Press in the wake of the Abeler announcement that she’s still considering getting in the race.

Abeler, who is a chiropractor, is a controversial figure within GOP politics. Republican House leadership in 2008 stripped him of his position as lead Republican on the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division when he voted with all DFLers to override Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation funding bill that increased the gasoline tax. Abeler’s vote on the transportation bill forever earned him membership in the group known as the Override Six.

Abeler has continued to vote against his party on a number of issues over the years, which has led most observers to think of him as a moderate Republican. Jacobs said Abeler’s moderate position could make him a compelling candidate outside of the party endorsement process.

“What’s striking about Abeler is that he may be able to use the difficulty in the Republican Party to define an opportunity for himself,” Jacobs noted. “What I mean by that is that he will be outside the current core of [what] the Republican Party and the Tea Party and the Ron Paul faction would be willing to support. In a more moderate statewide election, that might be a real advantage.”

Abeler hasn’t always articulated himself as a centrist, however. He was a strident opponent of Minnesota’s adopting the federal government’s early expansion of Medicaid, which was allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act. He contended that the federal government is so deeply indebted that it couldn’t be relied upon to pay for the expansion. In his campaign announcement, he sounded similar complaints about the federal debt.

“The personal and religious freedoms that were intended for us by our Founding Fathers are being steadily eroded,” Abeler said. “Government spending is out of control and unsustainable. Massive debt to foreign countries threatens our sovereignty. Our children and grandchildren are born into a future as indentured debtors of our country’s careless spending. When we are dependent on the government, we are absolutely not free.”

In an interview with Capitol Report, Abeler said he will work toward winning the endorsement but stopped short of saying he will abide by the party’s endorsement choice. “I’ll be seeking the Republican endorsement, and I hope they choose to endorse me,” Abeler said. “I think if they’re wise they will. I plan to talk to all the Republicans in the state and encourage them to endorse. If they look at my work as a whole, they’ll be really impressed with what I bring.”

Early emphasis on fundraising

Down the ticket from the Senate race, Pederson is running to succeed conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann in the 6th CD. He joins a field already populated by former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and Anoka County Board Chair Rhonda Sivarajah. Benson is the first Republican to enter the race to challenge Walz, who will be seeking a fifth term.

The endorsement conventions for these races are roughly 10 months away, and the primary and general elections are more distant still. But Abeler, Benson and Pederson have a large amount of fundraising ground to gain as state legislators who are going up against either well-funded incumbents or well-funded challengers for the nomination, said Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier.

“Really the train is leaving the station this summer, and everybody is going to have to jump on board,” Schier said. “Why now is pretty obvious, particularly with these candidates, because none of them have very substantial financial resources. So fundraising is a central task and it takes a lot of time and that’s another reason to start early.”

Benson, a retired postmaster, is serving his second term in the House and has developed a record as a staunch conservative. While Benson is the first Republican to enter the race to challenge Walz, he may not be the last. Former state Sen. Al DeKruif gave interviews to media outlets in New Ulm and Rochester at the same time as Benson’s announcement saying he’s thinking about running in the 1st CD. DeKruif, who chose not to seek re-election to the state Senate in 2012 because redistricting paired him with fellow GOP caucus member Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont, said he will make a decision on his congressional aspirations by the end of July. Former state Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who lost in the 2012 GOP primary in the 1st CD to former state Rep. Allen Quist, told Capitol Report on Tuesday that he’s considering running again, but didn’t have a timeframe for making a decision.

The 1st CD race in 2012 was fractured for Republicans by the divisive primary between Parry and Quist. In the end Walz trounced Quist by 15 percentage points. Benson told Capitol Report he’s in the process of assembling a campaign team and plotting strategy and hasn’t made a decision about the GOP endorsement.

“It’s too early in the game to begin thinking about that. What I can say is that I’m absolutely running against Tim Walz to take that seat back,” Benson said.

In the 6th CD, Pederson filed federal campaign paperwork this week, but he said he started hearing from supporters about a 2014 run the same morning last month that Bachmann announced her decision to retire. “I got a text message at 4:30 in the morning, and throughout the day I took a number of phone calls from supporters who said, ‘Hey John, I hope you’re taking a look at this,’” Pederson said.

Now that he’s in the race, Pederson said he’s developing his strategy to snag the endorsement and win the general election. He stopped short of saying he would abide by the GOP endorsement.

“The people that decide to support you in an effort like this, they want you to win. That’s important to me. I want to make sure I’m putting a plan together that leads to a victory.”

Geographic strongholds

Pederson’s entrance into the race sets up what several political observers say could turn into a regional battle for the endorsement. Emmer hails from Wright County, while Sivarajah’s home base is in Anoka County and Pederson represents Stearns and Sherburne counties.

“You’ve got a potential for campaigns to be run regionally in a primary,” longtime Republican operative Gregg Peppin said this week. “I’ve heard some talk that folks in St. Cloud are thinking that they are the regional center, the big heavy hitters, and, is it their time? Is it the time for someone from St. Cloud to represent the district?”

Pederson is well-known in the St. Cloud area, running a family construction block business, serving two terms on the St. Cloud City Council and now in his second term in the state Senate. His Senate District 14 seat was considered vulnerable by Democrats last fall, but Pederson won re-election by about 5 percent of the vote.

“My job as a Republican candidate is to show the voters of the 6th District why fiscal conservative values are for everybody, not just Republicans,” Pederson said.

Pederson may not be the last GOP candidate that crops up in the district. Former GOP House Majority Leader Matt Dean has yet to take himself out of the running, and former state GOP chair Pat Shortridge and former state Rep. Jim Knoblach are still eyeing the contest.

“The opening in the Bachmann district rarely comes along,” Jacobs said. “To have an opening in a district in which you live, if you have any future ambition, you’ve got to jump on it. So I think we’ve seen some of that.”

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