For his encore, Marty Seifert doesn’t want to talk as much about politics.
The former Republican House minority leader launched his second bid for the governor’s office on Thursday, more than three years after activists denied him endorsement in the 2010 race. At kickoff events, he highlighted his work with the Avera Marshall Foundation and selling real estate in the years since that failed campaign. Seifert also introduced a five-point plan to cut back on government bureaucracy and spending, an extension of his work slashing budgets and railing against DFL policies during his nearly 15 years in St. Paul.
“I come to you today as a 100 percent private sector citizen, as someone who has observed the state of Minnesota wallow in higher taxes, businesses looking to leave the state, health insurance premiums skyrocketing for the average Minnesotan, contemplation of releasing dangerous sex offenders,” Seifert told a crowd gathered at a St. Paul press conference. “I have a mixture of private sector and public experience, not all one and not all the other. I understand the budget, but more importantly I understand the budget of the average working class Minnesotan.
“People need to know more about me than I was the former House minority leader,” he added.
Seifert’s bid will give his supporters a chance to see the matchup they dreamed of in 2010: Seifert versus now-incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton. Firebrand Rep. Tom Emmer won the party’s backing over Seifert that year, but he ultimately lost the race to Dayton by less than 9,000 votes despite major GOP gains in other state races and around the nation.
“I think people realized we made a mistake in 2010,” said GOP activist John Gilmore, who is supporting retired financier Scott Honour in the governor’s race. Seifert joins five other Republicans in the race, including Honour, former Speaker Kurt Zellers, state Sen. Dave Thompson and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. “We could have had a Gov. Seifert right now if things had gone differently… I think a Seifert versus Dayton matchup would excite Republicans more than anything else.”
Seifert’s trouble will be moving away from the reputation he has developed as a government insider and party regular, factors that crippled his chances in 2010, when Tea Party fervor was at its peak. For Seifert’s part, he doesn’t plan to change too much about his campaign style, and he’s thinks that Republicans in Minnesota have learned their lesson.
“You cannot win in Minnesota unless you have non-Republicans vote for you,” Seifert said. “[Republicans] don’t want to lose. They are tired of losing statewide elections.”
A government wonk
Seifert has always been a student of politics and state government. During his time as a student at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, he studied political science and helped revive the College Republicans’ presence on campus. He later became the student body president. After college, Seifert spent time teaching government and history at Marshall Senior High School, but when a House seat in his district opened up, he couldn’t resist.
Seifert won that contest, and following his first term in the House, Republicans regained control of the chamber. Seifert was promoted to majority whip, the member responsible for counting votes, and with his love for the minutiae of state government, he was also given the gavel on the State Government Finance Committee. He earned a reputation for slashing state budgets.
But Republicans lost control of the chamber in 2006, and in assessing their newfound minority status, members picked Seifert as their leader. With his encyclopedic knowledge of state government, he was a natural sparring partner for the new DFL majorities. “He could get up and talk for an hour without saying anything and you would still be listening,” said former GOP Rep. Larry Howes, who supported Seifert’s first run for governor. “He knew his boundaries. He knew how far he could go and still be credible and still possibly get some of the Democrats to go with him.”
But during his time as minority leader, the DFL majorities overrode a veto from Gov. Tim Pawlenty to increase the state’s gas tax. Six members of Seifert’s Republican caucus joined Democrats in passing the override, and Seifert immediately felt pressure from members – including Emmer – to punish the so-called “Override Six.” In the end, Seifert withheld support for the re-election bids of those members who voted for the override, and he has since said he regrets taking action against those members.
“He’s a natural-born political guy,” said former GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning, who supported Seifert in his first bid for governor and has not yet endorsed in this year’s race. “He has acknowledged when he made some mistakes, which I think is an indication of someone who is really a leader… He was pressured by those who wanted heads to roll, and he later came to the realization that that was a mistake and it did not serve the interests of the party or the caucus well.”
In the summer of 2009, Seifert announced that he was stepping down from the minority leader job to run for governor. He was immediately proclaimed the leading contender for the endorsement at a time when Republicans didn’t go to competitive primaries in statewide races. In October of that year, Seifert placed first in a non-binding straw poll of state party activists, receiving 37 percent of the vote, followed by Emmer, who earned 23 percent.
But by the time the spring endorsing convention came around, the gap between Seifert and Emmer had tightened as the presence of the Tea Party grew both locally and nationally. Emmer, a firebrand conservative with an engaging presence at the pulpit, captured the ethos of that movement much more than Seifert. Seifert fell behind on the first ballot, and the second ballot showed Emmer nearing the threshold to win the endorsement. He dropped out before the third ballot, asking the convention to unanimously endorse Emmer.
“I’m not sure how much more exciting I can be,” Seifert said at his campaign rollout Thursday, referring to the criticisms of his 2010 campaign. “If you don’t like me, don’t vote for me.”
Seifert never completely took himself out of the running for governor in 2014, but his behind-the-scenes push for the office escalated just before the October gubernatorial straw poll this year, when an activist started a write-in campaign for Seifert on social media. Seifert had been on the phones with GOP delegates for months, and the strategy worked. He surprised everyone by taking third in that contest with 18 percent of the vote despite his undeclared status.
Supporters of Seifert emphasize that he’s the only rural candidate currently in the race, a dynamic that would provide a nice contrast to a Minneapolis Democrat like Dayton. He’s also an adept fundraiser after years of raising money for House Republicans’ re-election campaigns, they say.
But Seifert, who made his name in the Legislature as a government wonk, must now fight the notion that he’s a moderate career politician, qualities that have always turned off conservative delegates and likely primary voters. DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin even touched on that theme in responding to Seifert’s campaign.
“Once before former Rep. Marty Seifert tried to convince the right-wing activists in the Republican Party that he would carry their conservative torch through a gubernatorial election,” Martin said. “It will be interesting to see if Republican activists… are open to moderate candidates or if they are still looking for someone to run to the right and against building a better Minnesota.”
Seifert also jumps into the field late, and joins five other Republicans who are seeking the party’s backing. While he said he will “aggressively seek” the party’s endorsement, Seifert is not promising to abide by that decision. Zellers and Honour have also opened the door to a primary.
“I’m the last guy in the race, probably. Last time I was the first guy in the race, and you all know how that turned out,” he joked. “I’m open-minded about a primary. I’m not triggering one.”