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Abeler takes another look at Senate District 35 seat

Jim Abeler swears he meant what he said back in July, when he told MinnPost that he was not interested in running for the Senate District 35 seat that will be vacated when Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, leaves office next year. But since then, the former nine-term House member has had time to do some gardening, and some thinking, and decided he might miss legislative service more than he’d thought.

Abeler announced Monday that he was exploring a possible bid for the seat, which so far has attracted more than a dozen possible contenders, but only one declared candidate: Andy Aplikowski, a Republican activist and prolific blogger. In an interview, Abeler said his experience representing half of the district before his 2014 departure should make him the front-runner, and give him a leg up on fundraising and campaigning.

“I think it would be prudent for the [Republican] Party to recognize the value I would have at the polls, and once in office,” Abeler said.

Before announcing, Abeler said he had spoken with “a couple” of the people who would be eligible to run in the district, and only declared after being assured they would not join the field.

Other names floated as likely entrants include Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, the House freshman who ran for Abeler’s seat after he sought the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate last year, and former legislator Kathy Tingelstad. Tingelstad said Abeler’s entry into the race “may or may not” change her decision, but said she was not planning to make the choice sometime in September.

“Obviously, there are several other candidates still considering the position,” she said.

Aplikowski said he almost preferred having an actual opponent in the race, where previously he had run against the “vacuum,” with delegates uncertain about who was still mulling the decision.

“Everyone’s waiting to commit, because they don’t know if their best friend or their brother’s still going to get in,” Aplikowski said.

Petersen, for his part, said he believed he had spoken to every person who was thinking of running for his seat. While he informed each individually that he would not endorse a candidate, he said he had encouraged more than one to launch a bid.

“My feeling is, the more the merrier,” Petersen said. “The more options out there, the more questions are asked … the more information that’s going to be available to delegates.”

Neither Aplikowski nor Abeler has said they would abide by the party’s endorsement. Last year, after losing the U.S. Senate endorsement to Mike McFadden, Abeler pushed on to a primary, where he received less than 15 percent.

Part of Abeler’s confidence comes from that loss at the hands of a much better-funded candidate. While McFadden won most areas throughout the state, Abeler won handily in House District 35A, among Republican voters he formerly represented, and was within 2 percent of McFadden in House District 35B.

The two sides of the Senate district are measurably different in their political outlooks, according to Petersen, who pointed to the fact that President Barack Obama had won a majority of Abeler’s district in both of his elections. The other half, where Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, has served for four terms, is more traditionally conservative.

Aplikowski said he does not know Abeler personally, but is well aware of his political background. He said the two probably share the same socially conservative views, but hinted they might differ on fiscal positions, observing that Abeler had previously received mixed reviews from groups such as the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

“I would like to think I’d have a much higher rating from a group like that than [Abeler] did,” Aplikowski said.

If both Abeler and Tingelstad seek the nomination, the race would feature two of the “Override Six,” the House Republican members who crossed the aisle to approve a gas tax increase that had been vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Abeler said he knows what sort of criticism he will face, and from whom, and could “write their scripts for them” already, but said no other candidate could bring his experience and accomplishments. As a former House leader on health and human services budgeting, Abeler pushed for reforms that would save taxpayers money while still delivering the same or better services, he said.

In 2011, by modifying a handful of reform proposals, Abeler reached common ground with Gov. Mark Dayton on items the governor had said he would “never” agree to. With that willingness to negotiate, Abeler said he could immediately take a leading role on future health spending, even if Democrats maintained their majority after 2016.

“Deep down, that’s what the people want that,” Abeler said. “They want you to actually do things, and work together.”

Petersen thinks Abeler’s selling point of legislative experience would also work against him, at least with certain delegates.

“Jim Abeler has all the positives and all the negatives of having a public record already, that’s the burden that anybody carries,” Petersen said. “A first-time candidate can say, and be, anything they want to be.”

 


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