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Unlikely endorsee McFadden focuses on fall

State Rep. Jim Abeler, who was eliminated from the GOP U.S. Senate endorsement process early on, is challenging Mike McFaddden in the coming primary. Abeler says money alone should not be the deciding factor in the race. (Staff photo: James Nord)

State Rep. Jim Abeler, who was eliminated from the GOP U.S. Senate endorsement process early on, is challenging Mike McFaddden in the coming primary. Abeler says money alone should not be the deciding factor in the race. (Staff photo: James Nord)

Republican activists were nothing if not practical in endorsing a candidate for U.S. Senate over the weekend.

Minneapolis financier Mike McFadden has money on hand and the ability to raise more. He has national financial support, and he has a business record that Republicans can get behind. His finances also inspired backing from state House Republicans who are searching for cash and logistical support to help them take back the lower chamber from Democratic control.

“I think people looked at the overall ability to wage an effective statewide campaign,” GOP consultant Gregg Peppin said, reflecting on the convention. “There was a pragmatism that set in with regard to [delegates’] belief that McFadden might be able to put together an effective statewide organization.”

But McFadden faces incumbent Sen. Al Franken’s significant war chest ahead of November, and he’s been dogged by criticisms that he’s waffled on issues and avoided taking tough stances. And as of Tuesday, McFadden faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Jim Abeler, who got booted out of the endorsement process early on.

Abeler, standing behind a 1980s-era ambulance that he’d picked up for the campaign, said on Tuesday that money shouldn’t be the deciding factor in the race. His showing during the convention process and delegates’ ultimate choice of McFadden suggests that it will be difficult for him to mount a serious primary campaign.

Democrats are busy casting McFadden as nothing more than a “message-tested sales pitch,” and Abeler is following suit. “I don’t think you can govern by slogans,” he said when asked about McFadden’s failings as a leader on Tuesday.

The McFadden campaign dismissed Abeler as a threat and said it is squarely focused on taking on Franken in November. “The people of Minnesota are upset with the direction the country is headed in,” McFadden campaign manager Brad Herold said in an interview. “We’re going to provide an alternative to Minnesota voters.”

Looking back

St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg was the unlikely star at the convention over the weekend, but it wasn’t enough to stop McFadden in the end.

Dahlberg, who also lacked money and attempted to downplay its importance, led from the first ballot and made steady gains throughout the course of Friday’s Senate endorsing contest. Peppin said delegates appreciated Dahlberg’s pitch that he’s performed well in DFL-heavy St. Louis County and that he came into the process as a relative outsider. “I could sense some movement toward him in the last week,” Peppin said.

After the first ballot, the endorsement contest quickly turned into a two-person race between Dahlberg and McFadden, despite the widespread common wisdom that state Sen. Julianne Ortman was the front-runner among delegates. By the fifth ballot on Friday, Ortman had been forced out of the contest by her failure to meet the minimum vote threshold, and Dahlberg kept a steady lead on McFadden.

But a sophisticated floor plan based around former state Rep. Tom Emmer’s 2010 gubernatorial endorsement strategy was at play behind the scenes. Herold said the effort his organization’s floor team put into the convention “cannot be understated.”

“It was an unbelievable amount of planning and work,” he added. “We wanted to show the delegates that we were the most organized campaign.”

The endorsement fight took a pause early Saturday morning after delegates started leaving in droves. Dahlberg did not contest the move to suspend balloting around 2 a.m., but when the convention got back to it shortly before noon, momentum had shifted. Dahlberg and McFadden came out essentially tied on the eighth ballot and then McFadden pulled ahead. Dahlberg dropped out during the 10th ballot.

“It’s understandable,” Dahlberg said on Tuesday, looking back to the convention. “We knew that money was important, and we just didn’t know what the factoring would be.”

Activists, campaign staffers and lawmakers at the convention cited House lawmaker support, a solid floor game, dogged persistence and a late-in-the-game endorsement from Rep. Michele Bachmann as keys to McFadden’s success. “I just don’t think Dahlberg had the organization and the experience in place to complete the task,” said Rep. David Fitzsimmons, who ran Emmer’s 2010 floor strategy.

Jeff Kolb, a Republican activist and blogger, said that delegates’ candidate enthusiasm remained soft going into the convention, and that this explained the wild vote swings in the Senate race. Kolb also criticized the delegates’ approach to the endorsement, which saw a candidate who assured delegates that he wouldn’t abide by the party’s endorsement win that endorsement in the end.

“That whole piece was extremely bizarre,” he said. “It just kind of showed just exactly how screwed up this process is.”

Looking forward

For their part, the McFadden campaign isn’t publicly treating Abeler’s last-ditch primary bid as a threat. That’s the last remaining obstacle McFadden faces before he must square off against Franken.

Reached before and after the Anoka lawmaker’s announcement, Herold had roughly the same message: “The Republican primary in Minnesota is over, and we’re completely focused as a campaign on beating Al Franken in November.”

Abeler, standing in front of a vintage ambulance repurposed for his primary campaign, told reporters gathered at St. Paul’s East Side Family Clinic that he wanted to offer a choice to voters ahead of the general election. Abeler touted his legislative experience, especially in health care, and claimed McFadden doesn’t have the political know-how to lead.

But Abeler acknowledged that going up against McFadden’s significant resources — at the end of the most recent filing period, Abeler had $13,800 on hand to McFadden’s $1.79 million — would be difficult.

“I have a lot of shoes. We’re going to wear out some shoes,” Abeler said, adding: “We’ve got an awesome ambulance.”

Herold said Franken’s approval numbers would continue dropping with President Barack Obama’s diminishing public profile. “They’re going to head toward Mike McFadden,” Herold said of voters.

Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff highlighted in a statement the senator’s record of fighting for energy provisions in the farm bill to encourage rural job growth and championing skills training to fill job gaps across the nation.

“We’ve always known this was going to be a tough race that will come down to Minnesotans making a choice between different approaches to getting the country back on track,” Fetissoff said in the statement. “Sen. Franken has a strong record of standing up for Minnesotans and getting things done on their behalf.”

Franken had $5.9 million in cash on hand at the end of the last campaign finance reporting period.

After McFadden secured the endorsement on Saturday, he strode off stage into droves of supporters. One of those people was House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who gave McFadden a big hug. Daudt later said his caucus members, who have the opportunity to take over the lower chamber of the Legislature, are excited about McFadden’s ability to raise money.

“There were quite a few House members that did endorse him [at the convention], and I think that … they see that he probably is the one who will be most helpful,” Daudt said. “The money that he has raised obviously would be spent in the Senate race, but it pays for a lot of ground game that really would help all of us and would help us on the House races, as well.”

“We’re absolutely going to help out House candidates,” Herold added. “We’re just trying to figure out what that looks like now.”

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