In March, when the conservative activist Sheila Kihne successfully blocked the endorsement of Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, it was seen by many as payback for the incumbent’s 2013 vote to legalize gay marriage.
As Kihne tells it, Loon’s vote was not the only factor in her decision to challenge Loon, a one-time ally, but simply “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I wouldn’t be running if that were the only issue, and I wouldn’t have been able to block the endorsement if that was the only issue,” said Kihne, 40, during a break from her daily door-knocking routine in advance of the closely watched August 12 primary.
Loon, a deputy minority leader, was one of four House Republicans to join with Democratic lawmakers in voting to legalize gay marriage in 2013. The same vote cost Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, his re-endorsement in House District 30B. Unlike Loon, FitzSimmons chose not to continue on to a primary.
In an indication that the GOP establishment is anxious to move on from the divisiveness engendered by the marriage issue, Loon has garnered support from many top Republicans.
In May, the list of honorary chairs at a Loon fundraiser included such party stalwarts as former U.S. Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman, Congressmen John Kline and Erik Paulsen, 6th Congressional District candidate Tom Emmer, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
“I don’t think I’m going to have any endorsements,” said Kihne, with a self-deprecating chuckle before she recalled that she in fact has received one donation from a sitting legislator, Sen. Dave Osmek, R- Mound.
Kihne, who casts herself as an outsider willing to buck the establishment, downplayed the importance of such backing.
“I feel good about where I am and I’ve been working my butt off, door-knocking every day.”
Boost from Family Council
While it doesn’t count officially as an endorsement, Kihne has gotten a boost from the Minnesota Family Council. The organization — which opposes gay marriage — has mailed out at least two rounds of fliers to Eden Prairie voters, referring to Kihne as “a trusted conservative” and touting her support for “strong family values.”
On the elections page of its website, it praised Kihne “as a good example of what it means to TURN THE LIGHTS BACK ON in Minnesota” and criticized Loon for the marriage vote.
For her part, Kihne described Loon as “a very intelligent and thoughtful person” but also “a flip-flopper.” Kihne said Loon (who was not available for an interview prior to the deadline for this story) initially sold herself as a conservative only to stray on a range of taxing and spending issues.
Kihne counts herself among those who were misled. In 2008, in fact, Kihne and her physician husband, Todd, donated $500 to Loon in her first bid for office. Kihne also helped Loon in the GOP endorsement contest that year — but only, she said, after Loon reached out to discuss her views.
“She came to my house and we spent a few hours together. I asked her about every issue I could think of and I thought she was conservative enough,” said Kihne, adding that she was quickly disappointed by Loon’s more moderate positions.
Kihne said she did not plan to mount a campaign but wanted to work toward a non-endorsement as a matter of principle. When local party officials “rewrote the convention rules” so as to make a non-endorsement impossible without a rival candidate, Kihne said, she decided on impulse to “throw my name in.”
“Some people were very mad at me, but the whole convention went by the rules and we had a very good debate,” Kihne recalled. “About 20 percent of my speech was on the marriage issue. Then I talked about failed Republican leadership, and how I feel that we as Republicans don’t have a strong opposition party, in Minnesota or the nation.”
At the convention, Kihne led throughout five rounds of balloting before delegates ultimately voted for no endorsement.
Long-time conservative activist
While the primary challenge represents Kihne’s first bid for public office, she is no stranger to the limelight or political scrapping.
In 1994-95, Kihne served as the student body president at the University of Minnesota. Although a lifelong Republican, Kihne said she was not involved in party politics at the U. As the student body president, she said she focused principally on issues such as tuition.
After marrying and starting a family, Kihne moved around the country some before returning to Minnesota about 10 years ago. Looking for relief from the routines of motherhood, she became active in Republican politics in 2006 and served as the vice-chair of the 3rd Congressional District Republicans.
In 2009, Kihne was swept up by the Tea Party movement, traveling to Washington, D.C., for the group’s first national rally.
She and a like-minded friend later launched a small clothing company that sold T-shirts emblazoned with conservative political slogans. She subsequently parlayed the publicity from that business, as well as a dating book she co-authored with her sister, into a total of five appearances on national television.
For several years, Kihne regularly blogged about politics at The Activist Next Door, offering unvarnished commentary on state and national affairs, and she maintains a regular presence on Twitter. Her online jousting has prompted the occasional biting exchange. In a comment section on a story about the minimum wage, she tartly characterized a fellow poster as “a Marxist and a moron.”
“I’m trying to stop,” Kihne said of her blogging and tweeting. “If you’re going to run for office, you have to watch what you say. I’ve got a big mouth and I’ve said a lot.”
On Wednesday, Kihne was served with a reminder of that principle via a message on her smartphone. Michael Brodkorb, the political blogger and former Republican strategist, wanted to know whether she was “still in favor of a poll tax.” As she promptly deleted the message, Kihne explained that the inquiry stemmed from what she termed “a facetious” posting on her now-defunct blog several years ago.
DFLers watch, wait
As the Loon-Kihne primary draws closer, Republicans are not the only political observers with a reason to keep a close tab on the contest.
For Democrats anxious to maintain control of the House of Representatives, picking up the Republican-leaning seat still looks like a long shot. In 2012, Loon was the district’s second-highest vote getter, garnering 58 percent of the vote and outperforming the top of the ticket, where Mitt Romney prevailed over President Barack Obama by about 3 points.
In a general election, Loon’s gay marriage vote poses little political hazard. In 2012, just 40 percent of voters in the district supported the failed constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage — a fact Loon cited in explaining her subsequent vote to legalize gay marriage.
But in a primary, especially in one with low turnout dominated by activist Republicans, the math may prove less friendly to Loon — a potential boost to Kihne’s candidacy.
For Joan Howe-Pullis, the DFL’s endorsed candidate for the 48B seat, a Kihne upset would mean she wouldn’t have to square off against a popular incumbent in November.
Reached by phone, Howe-Pullis said she has been following the Republican contest with interest but she declined to express a preference about the outcome. “Lots of folks have asked me about it,” she said. “I’m going to leave it to the voters in the Republican primary to decide.”