In one of the most closely watched House primaries of the season, Kevin Kasel, a two-term city council member from St. Michael, is banking that his name recognition and support from local elected officials will help him overcome his biggest hurdle in his bid to represent District 30B: the Republican Party’s endorsement of his rival, political newcomer Eric Lucero.
“In a race like this, you’ve got to run every day like you’re a million miles behind. Getting the nomination without the endorsement is a big uphill climb,” said Kasel, a 55-year-old retail consultant and former Marine. “But I feel good about the fact that I’ve won two elections in a city that has 42 percent of the district’s population. I think the network I’ve built is probably stronger and deeper and reaches out to many more people than Mr. Lucero’s.”
Lucero, a first term city council member from Dayton, garnered the GOP endorsement in February after challenging the incumbent, Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, one of the four Republican House members who joined Democrats in voting to legalize gay marriage.
Despite an otherwise conservative record, FitzSimmons angered many social conservatives with that outlier vote and Lucero, backed by the Minnesota Family Council, successfully parlayed that discontent into an endorsement.
Acrimony stemming from the convention — and the accusations that the Lucero campaign made misleading statements about FitzSimmons’s record — has left Republicans in the solidly red district divided. According to a report last week from MinnPost, the Wright County Republicans went so far as to decline to provide financial support for Lucero’s campaign.
Lucero did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Kasel, who caucused on behalf of FitzSimmons, said the convention was “far more contentious than it needed to be.”
“It was very clear that the people who came to get rid of Fitz, that was all they wanted to do,” said Kasel, who described Lucero as “a single-issue candidate.”
“If you look at a snapshot of his website from before the endorsing convention, he never mentioned equity in school funding or I-94 and transportation,” Kasel said. “It was only since I became a candidate that he started mentioning those things.”
After Lucero locked up the endorsement, Kasel said he consulted other local Republican leaders and, after it became apparent FitzSimmons wouldn’t go to a primary, they encouraged Kasel to mount a primary challenge.
‘A mistake was made’
While the state party has sought to underscore the importance of getting candidates to abide by endorsements, Kasel said the primary serves as an important corrective. “Sometimes, as political people, we do things that maybe aren’t the right decision. And I believe, in this case, a mistake was made,” he said.
Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Buffalo, is among the local Republicans to flout the party line and throw her support behind Kasel. She said she is impressed by Kasel’s background, which includes a four-year stint working overseas for Best Buy.
“He’s perfect for what we need in leadership in St. Paul,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill said she does not know much about Lucero but was concerned about “misleading statements” aired during the endorsement fight. She said the Lucero campaign distributed literature that wrongly asserted FitzSimmons supported judicial retention elections — a hot-button issue among some Republican activists.
O’Neill said she broached the issue with Lucero at a recent meeting of the Wright County Republicans. “I asked, ‘Do you stand by the words in the letter?’ He said, ‘I printed that letter.’ But he would not apologize for it or stand by it,” O’ Neill said.
Michael Brodkorb, the former GOP strategist turned political blogger, said the contest between Lucero and Kasel is probably the most intriguing of the House Republican primaries and will serve as a referendum on the value of the party endorsement at the local level.
That’s made more notable because it is is occurring in Wright County, he said.
“Wright County is the Republican gold coast, one of the highest-performing Republican areas in the state. It’s strong not just because of all the Republican votes. It’s strong as an organizational area, as a local party unit area,” Brodkorb said. “It will really come down to how many of the activists are willing to stand with the endorsement decision.”
Despite the considerable internal party rancor produced by FitzSimmons’ vote on gay marriage, Kasel said he has heard little about the matter in the course of his door-knocking.
“I have not found that’s an issue that’s on the tip of people’s tongues. But everyone I’ve run into who knows about the situation has given me a positive response on my candidacy,” he said.