When the Carver County Republicans gathered in May to endorse a candidate to succeed their retiring state representative, Ernie Leidiger, the proceedings garnered scant notice outside the confines of the staunchly conservative district where the party’s nod all but ensures victory in the general election.
Waconia Mayor Jim Nash led businessman Bob Frey throughout seven rounds of balloting at the convention but failed to reach the 60 percent threshold needed for endorsement, thus setting the stage for a primary fight.
With the candidates girding for that Aug. 12 showdown, the contest has suddenly become outrage-du-jour fodder for national websites such as the Huffington Post and the Raw Story, prompted the launch of at least one anonymous political attack website, and left some Republicans fretting about potential damage to the party’s brand.
Even Montell Williams, the former talk show host, has weighed in on the matter. “This guy has no business running 4 garbage collector,” Williams tweeted in reference to Frey. “That he’s a conservative candidate for Congress embarrasses me.”
Williams gets no points for close reading — Frey is a state House candidate, not a congressional one — but the underlying sentiment has been widely echoed, both nationally and closer to home.
“As long as there are MNGOP candidates like Bob Frey and sitting legislators that endorse his kind, the MNGOP is doomed,” tweeted John Kriesel, a former Republican representative from Cottage Grove. “Conservatives can complain about the ‘liberal media’ all they want, but endorsing people like Frey invites the criticism.”
The surge in interest in the race was spurred principally by a MinnPost story published last week in which Frey expounded indelicately on the subject of sodomy, asserting that AIDS is caused by an enzyme in sperm that causes the immune system to fail when “deposited anally.”
Frey further explained that his opposition to “the gay agenda” was rooted in his concern about financial impacts to society caused by the spread of the disease, saying, “It’s more about sodomy than pigeonholing a certain lifestyle.”
While the MinnPost interview ignited the uproar, it was not the first instance in which Frey has made such outlier claims.
In 2004, Frey testified before the Legislature in opposition to the teaching of evolution, which he characterized as a fraud and pseudo-science. He linked the teaching of evolution to marked increases in crime, teenage pregnancy, abortion, suicide and lower SAT scores.
At that hearing, Frey showed lawmakers a replica of an enormous human femur. Frey testified that the replica was modeled on actual remains of a vanished race of 16-foot tall giants who lived alongside dinosaurs when the earth was created about 6,000 years ago.
Frey did not respond to several calls seeking comment.
Reached by telephone, Jim Nash declined to discuss Frey’s more divisive comments in specific.
“I would just say, based on what voters are telling me and from my six years as an elected official, people are not focused on those things,” Nash said. “They’re focused on the economy and health care, jobs and transportation. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
In his remarks at the endorsing convention, Nash said, he stuck mainly to the tried and true conservative themes about cutting taxes and spending but said he also touched on his pro-life views and support for gun rights.
“I’ve received overwhelming support in the district to run,” Nash added. “I’m ready to go to St. Paul and be there as the voice of common sense in the Legislature. I’m running because I want to take common sense off the endangered species list.”
Nash touted the endorsements he has garnered from current lawmakers, including Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. He said Paul Kohls, who represented the district until 2010, is also backing his candidacy.
On his campaign website, Frey lists endorsements from the district’s current representative, Ernie Liediger, as well as Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, Rep. Cindy Pugh, R-Chanhassen, Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
Frey’s Twitter and Facebook pages include pictures of him alongside Jeff Johnson, the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor, and Mike McFadden, the party’s endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate.
Michael Brodkorb, the former deputy chair of the state Republican party and now a political analyst, said Frey’s candidacy could prove damaging to the GOP’s larger prospects come November, especially if Frey prevails in the primary and his “off the wall comments” continue to receive attention.
“On a good day, Minnesota is a purple state. Candidates like this have the capacity to cause substantial harm to the top of the ticket,” Brodkorb said.
Brodkorb said the party’s institutional deference to grassroots activists — and emphasis on unity — can be counterproductive.
“This is an example where that rush to unity is not a good idea. I’m not saying there needs to be a civil war but there should be more room for respectful disagreement,” he said. “This gentleman obviously feels comfortable espousing these views, and he has not been on the receiving end of any substantial pushback until now.”
Attack site launched
Evidence of that pushback surfaced this week with the launching of an anonymous attack website, bobfreymn.info. The site provides links to the MinnPost article as well as several blogs that have chronicled Frey’s more provocative statements and opinions.
The website also contains a section devoted to Frey’s son and campaign manager, Mike Frey, who is a Baptist pastor at a Waconia church.
In testifying against same-sex marriage at the Legislature in 2013, the younger Frey cited concerns about sodomy and the spread of AIDS similar to those espoused by his father; that testimony also elicited a torrent of derisive commentary.
Brodkorb said the use of anonymous websites is not particularly unusual in politics but are much more commonly created in connection with high-profile races, not legislative contests. He also ventured that it looked to be the work of a political insider.
“Quite a few people could benefit from having these types of horrible comments promoted and catalogued in an easy-to-find way,” he said. “Whoever did this has made it very easy to become quickly informed about Mr. Frey’s comments, which is not good for Republicans, not for Frey and certainly not the Republican candidate for governor.”
Vince Beaudette, the chair of the Carver County Republicans, said he was not sure how the flap over Frey’s remarks would go over with voters in the district, which he characterized as “one of the most conservative, if not the most conservative, in the state.”
“I think it’s a horse race. I don’t know who is more likely to win,” Beaudette said. “I see a lot of advertisements for Jim Nash. I see a lot of signs for Bob Frey.”
As district chair, Beaudette said he remains officially neutral but also offered a defense of Frey, saying Frey made his statements about sodomy and AIDS out of concern for public health. “He wants to be sure that people understand the true risks of some forms of sexual contact. I don’t think it goes beyond that.
“With regard to Bob, his big deal is not so much on social issues, as some people say,” Beaudette added. “His big deal is to reduce the role and scope of government.”
“I’m not sure there’s a great deal of difference between the two candidates. I think Jim would tell you he puts a greater emphasis on being a fiscal conservative,” Beaudette said. “But I’m never heard Jim say anything that really separates him from Bob.”