To tap the ready-made cliché, when it comes to the next election, Kurt Daudt has little doubt.
House Minority Leader Daudt, R-Crown, sees a clear path to a majority win for House Republicans in November.
Partly, he says, that’s because the GOP has a slate of fresh candidates poised to retake key suburban and rural districts that fell into DFL hands in 2012.
Former Fine Line nightclub owner Dario Anselmo, for instance, is a good bet to unseat DFL Rep. Ron Erhardt in Edina, he says. He thinks ex-Rep. Kirk Stensrud likely will win back the District 48A seat he narrowly lost to DFler Yvonne Selcer in 2012. And Roz Peterson will be strong in her rematch against DFL Rep. Will Morgan in Lakeville’s newly minted District 56B.
Just as importantly, Daudt says, the DFL’s old tax-and-spend habits have gotten the better of them during their two years of dominance, playing directly into GOP hands. DFLers have even resurrected what Daudt calls their old trick of raising taxes one session only to pare provisionally away at those hikes during the election year, then running for re-election as tax-cutters.
“Obviously, good luck to them in that effort — Minnesotans really aren’t fooled,” Daudt says. “I think people knew they were going to do that to some extent. They knew that would be the result of single-party control under the Democrats.”
He talks like an old hand, but Daudt, 40, is nearing the end of just his second term in the House. He became minority leader after just a single term, when Republicans lost their fleeting legislative majority in 2012. But governing is not a new game for him. Daudt served for five years as an Isanti County commissioner and 10 years as a Stanford Township board supervisor before that.
People who work with or around him cite Daudt’s deft but earthy turn of phrase, citing that ability as a possible key to helping the GOP take back the House. He speaks the language of voters, they say, and he agrees.
“I talk kind of simply about this stuff,” Daudt says, “because I think the basics of this are so easily understandable.”
Former Rep. Steve Sviggum is a predecessor of Daudt’s as both House Minority leader and as Speaker — the leadership post Daudt says he will pursue if Republicans win back the House. Sviggum gives Daudt high marks, particularly as a communicator.
“He is able to bring forward — in a very clean and very understandable, very direct way — a different philosophy,” Sviggum says. “I see him as very talented.”
Some Democrats feel the same way. “I consider him a real top-notch legislator,” says Roger Moe, the longtime former DFL Senate Majority Leader who now works as an in-demand Capitol lobbyist.
“He is articulate,” Moe adds. “He knows how to succinctly present a complex issue and position so that you understand it. And as a leader, you have to be able to do that.”
Sense of drama
Daudt has demonstrated some dexterity along those lines. Stepping up to cameras after Gov. Mark Dayton’s
April 30 State of the State address, he delivered a quick, sharp verbal jab to Dayton’s political chin, highlighting what likely will be a primary theme in the upcoming elections.
“I think one of the things that we learned tonight,” Daudt told reporters, “is that the governor is very good at taking credit — but not very good at taking responsibility.”
The leader can be blunt when speaking to opponents. And as he showed during the March 27 House floor session, where he gave an impassioned speech about an obscure legislative effort, he is not above theatricality when the situation allows.
That day, Daudt was harshly critical of an obscure provision — Subdivision 2, to be exact — of House File 3158. The measure would give a $1.5 million grant to Harvest Heartland for six Minnesota food banks, through the state Agriculture Department. Daudt’s beef with it was that Democrats had altered its language from a “policy” provision to a “fiscal implementation” provision. That bit of maneuvering, he said, would allow Democrats to avoid sending the measure to committee where it could be assessed and challenged by lawmakers and citizens.
Daudt likened the maneuver to “taking a sharp stick and poking Minnesotans squarely in the eye.” He also noted that some elders in the chamber might be annoyed that the “new guy” was lecturing them about House procedure. “But isn’t it funny,” he said, “when the new guy has to point out when you trample on the rules?”
During that same speech, Daudt farcically introduced a bill to change the designation of all House committees from “policy committees” to “fiscal implementation committees.” He threatened to introduce additional language that would bar anyone from referring to the Capitol as “the people’s house.”
“Because what the Democrats have done,” he said, “is taking the people out of the House of Representatives.”
Finally, Daudt steered the argument to what apparently was the real subject of his angst — the $90 million Senate office building that has caused so much consternation this session. That project, he said, was a similar example of Democrats punching through legislation while “excluding Minnesotans from the process.”
“You think Minnesotans are going to be proud of the way that Democrats have treated them?” Daudt asked. “I can’t wait until the next election.”
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plain, is both a friend and fan of the minority leader, having been elected to the same freshman class of 2010. Woodard calls Daudt a fresh face for Republicans, one with potentially great appeal to voters come this fall.
Woodard says Daudt’s tactical skills are impeccable. For instance, rather than repeat old platitudes about tired, generalized concepts like taxes and spending, he tends to speak about concrete issues. Indeed, during an interview, Daudt hammered on just a few specifics, including the Senate office building and the DFL’s foibles around MNsure and the state health care exchange.
“I think that is what Minnesotans are looking for — those clear, concrete examples,” says Woodard.
Daudt avoids speaking publicly about hot-button social issues, Woodard says, to put off as few people as possible. It is not necessary to hammer incessantly on what everyone understands — that Republicans oppose abortion and support traditional marriage, Woodard says. And Daudt knows that, too, he says.
“Our philosophy has not changed,” he says. “We believe in prioritized spending, we believe in more personal responsibility, all of the things that the Republican Party has believed in for decades. But what that looks like and how that message is framed is certainly different than it has been in the past.”
Fellow lawmakers note that Daudt’s caucus leadership style is more understated and nuanced than they have seen in the past. Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, an old hand first elected in 1995, says that in caucus meetings, the leader tends to remain quiet and watchful.
“He doesn’t say much,” Gunther says. “I think he is more of an orchestrator.”
The characterization makes Daudt smile. “Maybe in certain circumstances, that could be a fair description of how I operate,” he says.
“I tend to not be the first to speak, and I don’t always need the last word or anything like that,” he says. “I feel like I am here to solve problems. That is how I approach everything I deal with.”
Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, another lawmaker elected with Daudt’s freshman class in 2010, plans to support Daudt for the speakership if Republicans topple the DFL House majority. O’Driscoll thinks Daudt’s calm personal style is key to his rapid ascension and success as minority leader. He puts people at ease, O’Driscoll says.
“He has an extremely busy schedule,” O’Driscoll says, “but he never makes anyone feel that they are wasting his time or that he has got to wrap this up because he has other things to do.”
As minority leader, Daudt largely serves as the House minority party’s public face and voice, keeping Republican ideas relevant as the party gears up for the fall.
But his mandate will change drastically if Republicans win back the House and Daudt moves on to the speakership. Sviggum, who served eight years as speaker, offers a little unsolicited advice, based on Minnesotans’ penchant for balanced government.
“My advice for him is to speak to Minnesotans about their best interests,” he says. “Their best interests, by consequence, might mean that he would be speaker.” However, Sviggum adds, Daudt’s speakership should not the end goal.
Even before Sviggum offered those thoughts, Daudt already appeared to be thinking along the same lines.
“I think if you look at the things that Democrats have done — if you look at the Senate office building and some of the other things — I just really believe Democrats are putting the wrong policies in place for Minnesota,” Daudt says.
“I will run for speaker,” he adds. “Of course, I will. But I don’t worry about that. It isn’t about me. I really truly believe that Minnesota needs House Republicans back in the majority.”
THE DAUDT FILE
Name: Kurt Daudt
Job: Minority leader, Minnesota House of Representatives
Grew up in: Princeton, Minn.
Lives in: Crown, Minn.
Education: Princeton High School; studied aviation management, University of North Dakota, earned no degree
Family: Single; black Labrador retriever named Lucy
Hobbies or interests: Daudt lives on the same farm his grandparents homesteaded in Crown, Minn. He enjoys fishing and spending time at his cabin on Spectacle Lake. Active in Project 24, a nonprofit organization that he helped found that builds orphanages in Kenya.
Random, intriguing note: Though Republicans have railed against both Obamacare and its Minnesota counterpart MNsure, Daudt says he is committed to improving, not dismantling either MNsure of the health exchange if Republicans become the House majority. “Absolutely,” he says, “and we have been all along.”