First task: cutting into McFadden’s formidable cash lead
State Sen. Julianne Ortman is no stranger to tough electoral fights with other Republicans.
The four-term senator hails from exurban Senate District 47, which some handicappers consider the most conservative legislative turf in the state. 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 a newly open Senate seat, ultimately winning a GOP primary by a scant 2 points. Just last spring, two Republicans blocked her from getting the endorsement for reelection in a five-ballot endorsing contest, but Ortman prevailed in the primary election.
Now Ortman is heading into a GOP electoral tussle of far greater magnitude. Standing under a gazebo in City Square Park in Waconia on Saturday, Ortman put months of rumors to bed by announcing she would join the race to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken for his seat next fall. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, some would say it seemed like months and months,” she told the crowd. “But let me ask you something: Do you really want more of the same from Washington for the next six years?”
She joins a political newcomer, Sunfish Lake financial executive Mike McFadden, and state Rep. Jim Abeler in the Republican field for the seat. All of the candidates have said they will seek the Republican endorsement, but none has promised to abide by that decision, setting up what many activists consider a wide-open GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.
While Ortman has name recognition among Republicans, some activists have been impressed by McFadden, who managed to raise more than $700,000 in the first month of his campaign. In the coming months, they say, Ortman will have to build a strong team around her and prove she can raise enough cash to compete.
“[Abeler] appeals to a certain part of the party, I wouldn’t count him out, but I think it’s pretty clear who the two frontrunners are,” said attorney and GOP activist Andy Brehm. “We are going to have a real contest, and I think that’s a good thing. I think we will have a real contrast of ideas and campaign styles.”
Political acumen v. fundraising
In announcing her campaign for Franken’s seat, Ortman said her work in the Legislature will help her jump into the job on day one. It’s clear she will tout her political experience by way of contrast with the 48-year-old McFadden, who worked with the Minneapolis firm Lazard Middle Market before departing to run for Senate.
As a member of the legislative minority, Ortman was a favorite of her caucus for her firm stance in opposition to the federal health care law and for taking the lead on tort reform proposals. She was briefly the subject of a draft movement in 2010 to challenge DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson, but Ortman declined to run in that race. When Republicans took the majority in the Senate after the 2010 election, Ortman was handed the prestigious Taxes Committee gavel, using that form in part to push for constitutional amendments that would have limited tax and spending increases at the Legislature.
“I’ve always been a solution-driven person, and I’ve always worked in a bipartisan way to get things done,” Ortman said in an interview with Capitol Report. “As Taxes chair, I balanced our $5 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. That’s the kind of leadership and experience that we need in the United States Senate.”
But activists will consider other factors, too. Franken raised nearly $2 million in the last quarter of the year and has about $3 million in the bank. In view of a state Republican Party apparatus still hamstrung by debt, activists say they are looking for a candidate who can self-fund or raise enough money to be competitive.
Following a decidedly botched campaign announcement (it occurred the same day Congresswoman Michele Bachmann retired), McFadden surfaced one month later to report he had raised more than $700,000 in the first month of his campaign. It was an impressive figure for a candidate no one had heard of before this year, and it turned heads in Washington, said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate campaign expert for the Cook Political Report.
“I think that McFadden’s first finance report impressed. He raised a pretty respectably amount of money in a very short period of time,” Duffy said. Ortman doesn’t have much of a profile in Washington, D.C., Duffy said, and there’s no substantial GOP answer to EMILY’s List, a political fund that supports progressive female candidates for higher office.
“As far as I’m concerned, in terms of a statewide race, they are all unknown and not all that well-tested,” Duffy added. “I think that this is one those times that a primary may not be the worst thing, because they all need the exposure.”
Longtime GOP operative Ben Golnik says Ortman will need to raise at least $500,000 when the next round of campaign finance reports come out in October. “McFadden has shown his ability to raise money and he has a good team around him,” Golnik said. “He has established himself pretty quickly as a good candidate. Ortman is a former taxes chair and comes from a nice part of the state, so I think she has the ability to raise money, but the question is how much. Fundraising is huge. She has to hit that number.”
But local activists have expressed confidence in her ability to raise the cash she needs. Ortman raised nearly $55,000 for her Senate contest year, a large figure for a legislative race in a safe GOP district. “She brings a great deal of fight and experience in the political arena,” Carver County GOP Chairman Vince Beaudette said. “Julianne is not afraid to promote fundraisers. She knows she’s up against a big challenge this time.”
Only woman in the race
When it comes to the endorsement, some activists think Ortman’s long career in politics and base of support in the uber-conservative Carver County will give her a leg up in the contest. “I think Sen. Ortman starts out a little bit ahead in terms of the endorsement,” Brehm said. “But do I think there’s room for an outsider who can raise money and is good on the issues? Of course I do.”
Ortman has another attribute that makes her stand out in the field – she’s the only female candidate, a point she highlighted in her campaign announcement.
“We need a strong, independent-minded woman, maybe a mom,” Ortman said to applause from the audience. Jennifer DeJournett, head of the Voices of Conservative Women political fund, said female candidates like Ortman will be important in attracting strategically critical “suburban soccer mom” votes in any statewide race. DeJournett and her group have not yet screened Ortman as a potential candidate to support.
DeJournett said Ortman’s campaign team will also be something other activists watch. Ortman has so far enlisted former Bachmann aide Andy Parrish and former Waconia City Councilor Jim Sanborn to help with her bid.
McFadden has had help from former Norm Coleman staffer Tom Erickson since the start of his campaign, and last week he announced that both Coleman and former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams would serve as honorary co-chairs of his campaign. His campaign manager, Molly Corrigan Cronin, is co-chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s Elephant Club – a vital segment of the party’s traditional large donors – and serves on the Board of Directors for the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment.
“Money is going to be a big issue, but it’s not everything,” DeJournett said. “People are going to be looking at if she can she build a strong ground game, and is she building a campaign team that is strong and loyal to her.”