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SoS contest highlights GOP down-ballot fields

The attention of the state’s conservatives during this week is almost certain to focus on a pair of upcoming decisions for the Republican Party of Minnesota. But even though the brightest lights will shine on the party’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate endorsements, delegates actually have five different statewide or federal offices to consider at this weekend’s state convention in Rochester.

Democrats, meanwhile, are destined to place a series of incumbents on the ballot, with the lone exception a contested two-way race to replace outgoing DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The relatively quiet state of the down-ballot GOP contests represents a contrast with the crowded, ever-noisier campaigns by those looking to top the ticket. The three races for non-gubernatorial constitutional offices — state auditor, attorney general and secretary of state — are also quite different from each other.

In the race for auditor, a single candidate, Randy Gilbert, has been allowed to march toward the Republican endorsement unopposed. The secretary of state contest saw a similar narrative taking shape before a late shake-up opened the door for former candidate Dan “Doc” Severson, who lost to Ritchie in 2010, and John Howe, a former state senator who has also served as mayor of Red Wing.

The fate of the last spot on the GOP ticket, for the right to run against Attorney General Lori Swanson, has remained a mystery until just recently, when rumors began to swirl that Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, planned to declare for the seat. Newman was not available to comment for this story, but he has scheduled a Thursday press conference and is expected to enter the race then.

Howe, Severson vie for SoS endorsement

The two-man field for the GOP nomination for secretary of state brings Severson before GOP delegates for a third consecutive state convention. After winning the party nomination to face Ritchie in 2010 — the DFL incumbent won with 49 percent of the vote to Severson’s 45 percent — the former four-term state representative from Sauk Rapids sought the party’s endorsement for U.S. Senate in 2012.

Severson lost that bid against then-state legislator Kurt Bills, who benefitted from a strong convention turnout among party activists whose thinking was aligned with Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

This time around, Severson had initially chosen to stay out of the GOP candidate pool altogether. In the secretary of state campaign, businessman and frontrunner Dennis Nguyen’s background was cause enough to deter Severson, who has long wanted to bring the Republican message to more racially diverse and immigrant constituencies.

“I didn’t feel like it would be genuine, my promoting minorities to be engaged, and then running against a gentleman from one of those communities,” Severson said.

Nguyen pulled out of the race suddenly in March, saying he wanted to focus on pending opportunities related to his international investment business. The resulting vacuum brought in Howe and Severson, who each enter the race with perceived strengths. Howe, who formerly owned a number of Sears department stores, has already lent his campaign $200,000. Severson, meanwhile, is already a known entity among party delegates, which may give him an edge in Friday’s endorsement decision.

“If I had to hazard a guess, I would say [Severson] would be the favorite, but I don’t know that he’s necessarily got it locked down yet,” said Gregg Peppin, campaign operative and account director at P2B Strategies. “[Severson] is a seasoned campaigner. He’s well known, and he has his message down pretty strongly.”

Severson, for his part, said he had secured the support of “a number” of party delegates, including some who had supported him in years past. As a further sign of success, he pointed to the number of endorsements he had received from current and former elected officials, many of whom switched allegiance after Nguyen’s withdrawal.

Howe, for his part, said he thinks he has won over “a majority” of the delegates he has encountered at local party unit meetings.

“The difficult thing is getting to the people who haven’t met you personally,” Howe said.

The former lawmaker also hopes that his six-figure commitment helps to convince some activists in Rochester.

“That’s probably going to be one of the things delegates are going to look at,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to win the Secretary of State’s office — Democrats are marshaling national money in this race.”

AG race draws limited interest

Fielding capable entrants for the attorney general race has been historically difficult for Republicans, as Democrats have now held the office for the past 46 years.

To date, the only officially registered GOP candidate for the office is perennial entrant Sharon Anderson, according to the secretary of state’s website.

Former GOP campaign and legislative staffer Michael Brodkorb characterized the office as a seeming “electoral lock” for Democrats, who tend to define their roles in terms of consumer protection, while Republican candidates view it as a “law-and-order” role.

“There’s such a rich history of it being a consumer watchdog, consumer advocate position,” Brodkorb said. “One has to wonder if Minnesotans just haven’t decided already what role they want for the attorney general.”

If Newman does jump in at this late stage, his timing would mirror that of Christopher Barden, the virtual unknown who entered the contest shortly before the 2010 convention and left with the party’s endorsement. Barden, a Minnesota native who had moved back to the state after years in Utah and was known in legal circles for his involvement in litigation concerning sexual abuse, was always considered a longshot to unseat Swanson.* [This sentence contains a clarification. See note, below.] Newman, who has often taken an interest in debates over criminal justice and civil law during his time in the Legislature, is perceived as a “solid” candidate, according to Minnesota Jobs Coalition Executive Director Ben Golnik.

Likewise, Peppin, in anticipation of Newman’s registration sometime this week, said: “That seat will have a credible Republican challenger.”

Gilbert has lock on auditor endorsement

The most settled spot on the Republican ticket seems to belong to Randy Gilbert, the apparent shoo-in for the party’s nod to challenge state Auditor Rebecca Otto. Gilbert sought the seat in 2010, and was narrowly defeated in an endorsement contest by Pat Anderson – herself formerly a state auditor – who had pulled out of the gubernatorial race earlier that year.

This time, Gilbert has left little to chance, essentially mounting a campaign that began soon after his initial loss.

“[Gilbert] has essentially cleared the field,” Peppin said. “In his case, there’s a real satisfaction with him as a candidate coming back for a return engagement.”

Gilbert said he continues to work almost full-time as an accountant, though he argues that background helps to prove his qualification for the office to delegates and general election voters. Gilbert’s campaign has been a largely volunteer-driven operation, though he has previously retained a political consultant and plans to do so again soon.

Gilbert has also spent significant time campaigning in the 8th Congressional District, where he thinks he can capture some traditional DFL voters disenchanted by Otto’s skepticism on new mining projects.

“Those voters, they have a choice to be made,” Gilbert said, “and this is not going to be a sleepy race.”

* Editor’s note: This sentence was modified for the purpose of clarification after Christopher Barden wrote to PIM to object to a characterization of him as being from Utah, and further objected that litigation involving claims of sexual abuse is not his “specialty,” as the story originally indicated.

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