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Upheavals hit GOP secretary of state field

Mike Mullen//March 12, 2014

Upheavals hit GOP secretary of state field

Mike Mullen//March 12, 2014

The presumptive Republican nominee for secretary of state suddenly left that race with a surprise announcement Monday morning, and since that time one former state senator has entered the race and another is among numerous Republicans still weighing a run.

Dennis Nguyen, a successful financier and political rookie, posted a message to his campaign Facebook page explaining why he planned to leave the campaign. Nguyen cited professional and personal reasons for his decision, writing that he wanted to focus on commitments to both his investment firm and his family. Nguyen has four children from a previous marriage.

“My four young children require my active involvement in their lives,” Nguyen wrote. “Additionally, global equity markets are on the upswing, and I need to focus on bringing a number of New Asia Partners’ investments to the market in 2014. This will require spending a lot of time over the next few months traveling both domestically and internationally.”

The announcement from Nguyen, the only declared Republican candidate in the race to succeed DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, set off immediate speculation about who might step in to take his place. Throughout Nguyen’s bid for the office, a number of Republican alternatives had expressed interest personally or been suggested by party activists.

In the immediate wake of Nguyen’s departure, two former Republican state senators confirmed their interest in winning the party nomination. On Tuesday, former GOP Sen. John Howe announced his own candidacy. Howe, who served one term in the Senate, said he had been mulling a bid, and added that he was planning to join the field even if Nguyen had stayed in the race. And Ted Daley — a single-term senator from Eagan who, like Howe, served during the GOP majorities of 2011-12 — told Capitol Report that he, too, had been considering a run for the office for some time.

As of early Monday afternoon, Daley was unaware that Nguyen had dropped out of the race, and said the news would definitely have an impact on his own choice.

Nguyen’s departure

Nguyen’s statement came soon after a news report that might have threatened his candidacy. Last week, a blog post on the City Pages website revealed that a number of anonymous Republican activists were questioning Nguyen’s viability as a statewide candidate. At issue were allegations that Nguyen was known to visit strip clubs; those allegations were subsequently confirmed by Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who had joined the campaign as an organizer and spokesman.

Nguyen’s statement made no mention of that episode, and he was not available for further comment following the press release announcement.

Republican strategist Gregg Peppin said he was unaware of any effort among conservative activists to deter Nguyen from staying in the race, or of planting the strip club story as an attempt to further vet an unknown candidate.

“I think it had the effect of probably doing that, to some degree,” said Peppin, the director of P2B Strategies. “I don’t believe that was the reason that [Nguyen] got out — not on its own.”

Whether word of Nguyen’s habits would have even reached the relevant audience is also in question, according to Minnesota Jobs Coalition director Ben Golnik.

“I think the average Republican activist is probably not a regular reader of City Pages,” Golnik said.

Golnik added that he takes Nguyen at his word regarding his business commitments, and said similar struggles are an inherent dilemma when recruiting business-minded candidates.

Nguyen’s choice to drop out was apparently abrupt, and the California native still seemed dedicated to seeking the office in recent days. Nguyen made the rounds at a number of Republican events this past weekend, according to a series of photographs posted to his campaign Facebook page.

The first-time candidate had drawn the support of a number of prominent Republicans, including former GOP House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who was serving as Nguyen’s campaign chair, and a majority of the Republican caucus members in both chambers. Nguyen carried the endorsement of all but a handful of the current crop of Republican legislators.

In his announcement, Nguyen said he planned to support whichever Republican candidate eventually wins the party endorsement.

“I will still be actively engaged in our Minnesota Republican Party and look forward to enthusiastically supporting our Republican nominee for secretary of state in 2014,” Nguyen said. “This will be a tough election, and all hands are needed on deck.”

Other possible GOP candidates

The list of potential Republican entrants has also been thought to include state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the former officeholder who lost to Ritchie in 2006. Since then, Kiffmeyer has served in both the Minnesota House and Senate, but has recently said she would consider competing for a number of offices, including her former position.

Kiffmeyer was secretary of state from 1999-2007, and has remained one of the leading Republican voices on issues of election records and voter fraud.

Also still thinking about it is Kent Kaiser, a Northwestern College professor and former staffer during Kiffmeyer’s administration. Reached on Tuesday, Kaiser said he had been surprised by the news about Nguyen, and wasn’t sure how that might affect his decision.

“I don’t know yet,” Kaiser said. “I just don’t know. I really haven’t thought about it.”

Peppin said he was also aware of at least two more GOP figures who might seize the opportunity. Anoka County Board member Rhonda Sivarajah is currently running for the Republican nomination in the heavily conservative 6th Congressional District, but she and other candidates are well behind front-runner Tom Emmer in terms of organization and fundraising. Peppin said some party insiders had floated the idea that Sivarajah might consider exiting that race and instead pursuing the secretary of state’s office.

Also thought to be mulling the notion is Sarah Janecek, a lobbyist and political consultant who once owned Politics in Minnesota and served as publisher until 2010.

There was one Republican whom Peppin could rule out: his wife, Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who had been rumored as a possible candidate before withdrawing from consideration in 2013. Despite encouragement received since Ngyuen’s announcement, Gregg Peppin said she planned to focus on her legislative service and House re-election campaign.

“She’s not running for secretary of state this cycle,” Peppin said.

Daley weighs decision

Prior to the Monday announcement, Daley’s calculations about the campaign had included the likely reality that any challenger to Nguyen would have to prepare for a costly primary election.  Nguyen did not focus on fundraising in 2013, but had recently said that he planned to tap his network of friends and supporters in the financial industry, and planned to raise $100,000 by the end of March.

“I had heard [Ngyuen] was considering going to a primary,” Daley said. “If that’s not the case, that certainly would impact the decision and make a certain difference.”

Since last spring, Daley has been working as the treasurer on Republican Scott Honour’s gubernatorial campaign. Daley said his work on that campaign was one of a number of commitments he would need to wrap up before entering the secretary of state contest.

“I’ve talked to [Honour], and I haven’t officially given my resignation,” Daley said. “Now, knowing this information, that certainly is another consideration.”

Elected to the Senate in 2010, Daley served one term before losing the seat in a rematch with Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, in 2012. Daley did not specify his timetable for making a decision about the race, but said he intended to make up his mind “very soon.”

Howe said he had a “very good” conversation with Daley, his former Senate Republican caucus colleague, prior to making his own announcement. Howe served one term representing Red Wing before his 2012 loss to Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. His brother, Jeff Howe, is now a Republican legislator representing Rockville.

Howe plans to seek and abide by the GOP endorsement in the secretary of state’s race, and said he hopes any subsequent contenders would do the same.

Despite Ritchie’s controversial record in office, Howe said he does not plan to run a campaign focused on his predecessor, who has often been vilified — and, in several instances, sued — for decisions made during his tenure.

“Mark Ritchie is not running in this race,” Howe said.

On perhaps the most controversial topic in the elections arena, Howe said he is generally supportive of identification requirements to prevent voter fraud, but wants a “reasonable approach” to those efforts. He recalled his attempt to change the voter ID constitutional amendment passed during the 2011 session, when Howe offered an amendment that would have allowed for equivalent proofs of identity.

The change passed on a Senate floor vote, but Howe was left off the conference committee; he ultimately wound up voting in favor of the constitutional amendment, which later failed in a statewide vote. That support was highlighted on Tuesday in a critical press release from DFL Party chairman Ken Martin, who said Howe’s vote was out of step with “Minnesota’s proud tradition of high voter turnout.”

Howe and any future candidates on the Republican side are getting a relatively late start compared to their Democratic counterparts. DFL Reps. Steve Simon (Hopkins) and Debra Hilstrom (Brooklyn Center) both declared for the race in mid-2013, and Simon entered this year with $112,000 in cash on hand.

Peppin said that factor should not discourage Republicans from jumping in to a suddenly wide-open race, especially with gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections also on the 2014 ballot. Those contests tend to drown out the constitutional office elections, where candidates tend to be subject to up-ticket political momentum and larger trends.

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