For months, the 6th Congressional District race was mostly a Washington-bashing affair. With no well-known Democratic candidates and a strongly conservative voter profile, the district’s Republican contenders opted to swing away at federal spending bloat and health care reform, while touting their own expertise.
But the politeness that has prevailed in the early going may have come to an end this week, when CD 6 GOP candidate Phil Krinkie fired the first volley aimed directly at a fellow Republican. On Tuesday morning, Krinkie’s campaign issued a press release announcing that he would not appear in two debates that required attendees to pay.
In a subsequent interview with Politics in Minnesota, Krinkie reiterated a point he had made first to the St. Cloud Times: namely, that perceived 6th District frontrunner Tom Emmer was ducking the public.
It seems to me,” Krinkie told PIM, “that from the last few months on the campaign trail, Mr. Emmer has been unwilling to take part in public debate. He’ll go to a Republican legislative district meeting, and he’ll make a statement. But he won’t take questions.”
More than one local Republican is unnerved by Krinkie’s newly confrontational tone. Emmer, meanwhile, rejects the premise outright.
Though Emmer doesn’t begrudge his fellow entrant the right to play politics – “[Krinkie] can do whatever he wants,” Emmer said – he rejected the idea that he has ducked the public.
“I was a radio talk show host for two years,” Emmer said. “I’m not sure what he’s talking about. I’ve visited with every local party, been to their meetings.”
Krinkie: Stop dodging public
The dust-up began with Krinkie’s decision not to appear at a pair of fundraising events that would also double as candidate forums. Krinkie explains his decisions on the grounds of running a more open and transparent campaign, one that would welcome oversight from the general public and the media rather than just paid insiders.
Krinkie acknowledges that the former gubernatorial nominee has attended numerous meet-and-greet events. However, at an open debate held early last month at the College of St. Benedict’s, Krinkie, Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, and Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah were all on hand, but Emmer opted not to appear.
Krinkie, in turn, is declining an offer to debate at fundraising events for Freedom Club and the 6th Congressional District Republican Committee.
The “CD 6 Victory Dinner & Candidate Forum” had always been imagined as a fundraiser for the party, said, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who points out the same event will include an appearance from Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy.
“I would think [Krinkie] would take the opportunity to come and meet people,” Benson said. “I would hope that everyone in the Sixth District would.”
Choosing not to appear at either forum led to a contentious debate within the Krinkie campaign, with the candidate saying he overruled “resistance” from some of his staffers.
“My absence is probably going to irritate some people – probably irritate some of [local GOP] leadership,” Krinkie said.
On that count, Krinkie is not wrong. In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, CD 6 Republican Committee chair Luke Yurczyk said the committee was “disappointed” in Krinkie’s decision.
“We’d love it if he’d reconsider,” Yurczyk told Politics in Minnesota.
Activist reaction mixed
Unease about Krinkie’s targeting of Emmer reaches lower, to the district’s activists and GOP boosters, as well. Troy Freihamer, chair of the Senate District 13 GOP, said he feared Krinkie has “muddied up the race” by calling out Emmer, adding that candidates should be allowed to run their own races.
Krinkie’s salvo makes a certain sense to Kevin Arnold, chair of the Benton County Republicans. Emmer held a huge lead in money from individual donors as of the last fundraising reporting deadline, and enjoys a wide lead in name recognition.
Emmer does not need exposure, Arnold said, nor does he need to earn distinction by besting other Republican candidates face-to-face. In the times Arnold has seen Emmer speak to an audience of party activists, there seems to be a palpable sense that the crowd is being won over, according to Arnold.
“You see the sparkles in people’s eyes around the room when he talks,” Arnold said of Emmer, the lone candidate who has pledged to abide by the party endorsement. “Those delegates, that’s all [Emmer] is really going for.”
As for how the emerging argument might affect the contest, Arnold said most people will probably fault Krinkie, at least initially, for picking an intra-party fight. But as activists digest the message, it might wind up working in the favor of the rest of the field.
“It is sinking in, that … no I haven’t seen [Emmer] versus anyone else in a debate yet,” Arnold said. “I think the informed electorate might view this worse for [Emmer] in the end.”
Conservative activist John Gilmore, who lives outside the district but has been watching the race closely, said Krinkie’s willingness to engage Emmer is a welcome step toward a more competitive race.
“I think it changes the race,” Gilmore said. “I think what’s happening, is [Krinkie] disrupted the slow train of inevitability that the Emmer people wanted to set in motion.”
The choice not to appear at open candidate debates “wasn’t a matter of avoidance,” Emmer said. He added that his campaign plans to hold a Christmas party at its office in Otsego on Dec. 12, and that everyone, including the press and the general public, would be welcome to attend.