Chris Dahlberg wants to see someone a little folksier in Washington, D.C.
That was his main message last week when the St. Louis County commissioner, Republican and now-retired member of the U.S. Army reserves kicked of his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Standing in front of friends and supporters in New Brighton, Dahlberg said he wanted to bring “front porch politics” back to Congress, and touted his ability to get elected to public office in the traditionally Democratic northeastern part of the state.
“In this day and age, the foremost important qualities are being tall, dark, and handsome and a millionaire,” Dahlberg told Capitol Report in a wide-ranging interview about his campaign. “Well, I’m none of those, but people know I’m a scrapper, I’m a fighter and I’ll work hard.”
But despite his common-man theme, Dahlberg’s also got some traditional, big-money Republicans who have his back in his bid against incumbent Democratic Sen. Al Franken. Dahlberg’s intention to run was originally revealed after a memo leaked from broadcasting magnate and GOP donor Stanley Hubbard supporting his campaign. He joins a crowded GOP field for the seat that includes Minneapolis financial executive Mike McFadden, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, state Rep. Jim Abeler, Monti Moreno and Phillip Parrish.
Capitol Report sat down with Dahlberg to talk about his message on the stump, fundraising to take on Franken, and why he thinks he’s a better choice than the five other Republicans running in the race.
Capitol Report: When did you know you wanted to run for the U.S. Senate?
Chris Dahlberg: I was weighing it for a long time. You really have to consider a thing like this. It’s really difficult because it’s a different battle when you are going for this high of a race. Mr. Franken, I think, has been having fundraisers at Conan O’Brien’s house, so how do you compete with that? Not only does he personally have deep pockets, but he has friends that do. He could potentially raise $20 million on this, and a lot of it is going to come from outside, so it’s a huge challenge and I had to look at that.
My motivation for getting in was, like a lot of people, I just shook my head at Washington, D.C. Both parties are out of control and they are not solving the problems. I have a 9-year-old daughter and we have a $17 trillion debt and we are spending on things today that I don’t think she will benefit from in the future. That was my problem and I said, “How do we start to solve this?” We need to have someone in there who will tackle the problems, and also not someone who will just put their finger up in the air and say, “What is the mood today?” They have to be strong enough to say no and not necessarily care if they are going to run for re-election. Running for reelection shouldn’t be their ultimate goal in life.
I also had to make the decision: Can I actually win this? While I really believe in citizen involvement, I don’t like to get involved in something that I don’t know that I can win. That’s just the way I am. Years ago I took on a 32-year incumbent for the county board. People said, “Chris, this can’t be done,” but you have to have faith in yourself and see that people are receptive for change. I think the attitude for Minnesota is that we need a change, and we need someone who is really down to earth.
CR: How has the fundraising effort been going so far?
Dahlberg: Our idea was, we are going to work real hard in the fourth quarter of 2013 and have a real strong showing there. I am encouraged, I’ve got some good backers such as Stan Hubbard of Hubbard Broadcasting, and I’ve got a lot of people back from my hometown of Duluth that are helping me out. And already I have people in my own family who are saying, “Chris, we will donate $5,000,” and I have friends who are contributing $50 and $25, and that’s a lot of money for some people.
CR: Are you willing, like some of your Republican opponents, to invest any of your personal wealth into this campaign?
Dahlberg: One of the things we joke about is, in this day and age, the foremost important qualities are being tall, dark, and handsome and a millionaire. Well, I’m none of those, but people know I’m a scrapper, I’m a fighter and I’ll work hard. I think that comes from my military background. I take on a mission and focus on that. I will work really hard in running for election, both in winning the primary and going for the general election.
The reality is, [incumbents have] special interests out there that puts lots of money behind them, they can go out and have fancy parties in Hollywood and on Broadway. For a county commissioner like me, it’s a David versus Goliath race.
CR: You plan to seek the GOP endorsement, correct? Will you abide by that decision?
Dahlberg: I’m going for the endorsement. The problem we have right now is that others have said they want the endorsement but they are going to go to the primary, so it puts me in the position that if I say, “OK, I’m the only one who is going to abide by it,” it’s like saying I’m going to put one arm behind my back and one leg behind my back and I’m going to fight this, and that doesn’t seem like it’s a fair process.
CR: What has been your main message on the stump so far?
Dahlberg: I’m running all the way from a county commissioner to U.S. senator, and it’s kind of a big step. Most people who run for U.S. Senate run out of Congress. That’s kind of the logical spot, but I think it’s more logical to have a local perspective, because I see what happens on the ground.
What happens is we send $10 to Washington, they take $3 and give us $7 back and tell us how to spend it, and if we don’t spend it right, they will penalize us. And not only that, they will ask us to match those dollars when they were our dollars to begin with. It’s just a recipe for disaster, and that’s why we are at this $17 trillion debt.
I’m also talking about prioritization. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. A good example is — under sequestration and what Washington politicians have allowed — is giving out free cellphones, I think they are called “Obamaphones,” to people is of equal importance as giving a Marine in Afghanistan a flak jacket. You have to priorities and say no, we are not going to do this, we have tough times.
CR: Beyond Republicans, how would you appeal to independent or moderate Democratic voters?
Dahlberg: I think Minnesota needs to elect a fiscal conservative to Washington, D.C., and it’s a message that independents and moderate Democrats accept. A person that has a liberal bent toward government and all things is only going to bring us into further debt … I think that’s the message where I will be in tune with all Minnesotans. That’s where I appeal.
I have some unique qualities. I think the Republican Party, the candidates they have put forward, it’s been a recipe for failure and they’ve really been clobbered. They’ve really put the wrong candidates forward. Any Republican can win in a Republican district, but how do you win in a district like mine, in a district that’s considered Democratic? What you do is appeal to common sense.
I’m also from greater Minnesota. I’m the only candidate from rural Minnesota. I grew up in small town America. A county that’s got 5,000 to 7,000 people, I can understand it as much as a county that has 1.2 million.
CR: What do you consider Franken’s biggest weaknesses as an incumbent?
Dahlberg: Obviously he has a record that he has to defend, and I think it’s going to be difficult for him. I would argue that Mr. Franken is a senator in search of a purpose. He really doesn’t have focus and he lacks consistency. A good example of this is recently he talked about the idea that we need to have finger prints for cell phones. In one sense he is writing to a private company saying he’s concerned about this for the security of the citizens, but if you recall, just months earlier he’s telling the government and the IRS that they should investigate private citizen groups.
CR: How would you like to see immigration policies reformed?
Dahlberg: Just like when my great grandparents came over… there was an immigration policy in place and they followed the law. I think we need immigrants, because what happens is when they come over here for the American dream, they are hungry and they want to work. But I think everyone needs to be treated fairly. No one should have privilege over the law. There’s a fairness issue.
There’s also a national security issue. We have to be concerned about who’s coming into our borders and knowing that as much as possible.
CR: How would you approach dealing with the long-term spending problems with Social Security and Medicare, or what are commonly called “entitlement” programs?
Dahlberg: There really is not a sense of being able to accurately track the dollars. What you have when we send the dollars to Washington, D.C., and they are turned back, somehow there is this transformation in our mind that these dollars coming back are free dollars, but the reality is they are our dollars.
We should help people who are truly needy. If there is a woman that’s been battered, we should be there to help her, or there is a person that suffers from mental illness, we should help them. If there is a guy or a gal that is able-bodied and able to work, we need to be able to distinguish that. Right now the way the system is, we are unable to distinguish.
CR: How do you differentiate yourself from the other Republicans running?
Dahlberg: I don’t even compare myself to the other Republicans. At the end of the day, it’s going to be a clear distinction between myself and Sen. Franken.