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Howe takes plunge into nearly empty CD 2 pool

Mike Mullen//September 23, 2015

Howe takes plunge into nearly empty CD 2 pool

Mike Mullen//September 23, 2015

John Howe hasn’t taken out a personal loan since 1996, according to an answer he gave reporters during a Tuesday morning press conference. That period of conservative financial management is about to come to an end, but there’s one small wrinkle. Howe is going to be both the debtor and the creditor in this transaction, and the “loan” is supposed to help him get elected to Congress.

Howe, a former one-term Minnesota state senator, announced on Tuesday his bid for the seat currently held by GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline. With his announcement, Howe became the first Republican in the field who has held elective office. Howe was mayor of Red Wing before joining the Senate, while David Gerson, a leadership consultant, author and repeat primary challenger to Kline, has only private-sector experience.

That public service will make for good preparation, Howe said, though he argued that he is far from a “career politician,” and touted his experience as a former owner of several area Sears franchises.

“I’m not part of the political class that needs to get elected to have a job,” Howe said.

Howe’s business success is both the backbone of his message and built into the structure of his campaign: He said Tuesday that he was prepared to self-fund his campaign to the tune of at least $300,000, and possibly up to $500,000, if only to keep pace with the DFL candidates already in the race.

Mary Lawrence, an ophthalmologist with the Veterans Affairs medical system, collected more than $1 million during the April-through-June fundraising period — $500,000 of that total came from Lawrence’s own checkbook — and Angie Craig, a former executive at St. Jude’s Medical, reported more than $327,000 in donations.

“We know what we’re up against on the Democratic side,” Howe said. “You’re talking about people who have a significant amount of resources.”

Gerson hardly made a dent against Kline’s fundraising advantage during his 2014 challenge to the incumbent, but ran a grassroots campaign among party activists that threatened the seven-term U.S. House member. Speaking after Tuesday’s announcement, Gerson said he had continued to target party delegates, and was not disturbed by the thought of being outspent.

“We may not win the fundraising contest, but we’re confident we’re going to get the endorsement,” Gerson said. “We’re going to be who [Republican] primary voters will choose, and we will have no problem raising money to win the general [election] as well.”

Howe said Tuesday that he believes the party’s endorsement is the best path to electoral success, but said he would want to see who joined the field before deciding to abide by the delegates’ decision. Gerson, for his part, thought his strong support among 2nd Congressional District Republicans had effectively driven other Republicans from even entering the race, even those with strong name recognition: former Minnesota First Lady Mary Pawlenty, GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden and state Reps. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazzepa, had each been floated as potential replacements for Kline, but have already officially announced they aren’t running.

Howe speculated that some possible campaigns had been nixed due to the necessary commitment of time and resources just to mount a campaign, let alone actual service in Congress. Until recently, he had been considering a smaller contest: Before Kline’s announcement, Howe had volunteered to Capitol Report that he intended to challenge Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, for the seat Howe lost in 2012.

Howe said he had spent weeks thinking about his CD 2 run, and only made the decision after reassuring conversations with political allies, consultants and his family.

Drazkowski said Tuesday he thought he would have performed well in a party endorsement, but felt it wasn’t “the right time” for him to mount a campaign. Drazkowski said he is thinking “rather strongly” about supporting one candidate in the district, though he declined to say whom, or whether he or she is already in the race.

Former state senator Ted Daley and former representative Pam Myhra are both known to be weighing their options, as is Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, who said Tuesday he is still thinking it over, but would not be encouraged or discouraged by the apparent hesitancy of some Republicans to join the toss-up district.

“It’s not a decision that ends with an announcement,” Albright said. “It’s basically a five-year decision. If you’re successful, you’re immediately following that with a reelection campaign, and then another.”

Albright, now in his second term, said another factor playing into his consideration is the campaign’s possible detraction from his ability to seek other offices.

“You have to weigh what doors get closed, or might not be open or accessible to you, if you choose this path,” he said.

Garofalo, speaking Tuesday, said the right candidate would have to appeal to rural and suburban voters, and that any entrant who drifted too far to the right or left would have little chance. He added that one consistent value throughout the district, including areas now represented by Democrats in the Legislature, is a fiscally conservative mindset.

“Any candidate wanting to spend, borrow or tax is not going to do well here,” he said.

Howe’s background, coupled with his pledge to “invest in himself,” make him a formidable challenger to Gerson, according to Michael Brodkorb, a blogger and former GOP operative who lives in the district. But neither should be enough to deter candidates waiting in the wings, especially because even the $500,000 self-loan would not last long in a truly competitive 2nd CD race.

“$300,000 to $500,000, that’s a nice amount, but you can burn through that very quickly,” Brodkorb said. “To win the seat and hold it, you’re talking about a multimillion-dollar race.”

Howe tried to couple his financial strength and business success with a bit of humility Tuesday, telling reporters that he was a “regular guy,” who had just recently found himself cleaning toilets at the last of the Sears stores he co-owns. (Howe sold other stores previously, saying he was “very fortunate” to do so at the right time.)

When the press event was over, Howe moved to the back of the room to chat with Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, one of two legislators who turned up to support his nascent campaign; the other was Howe’s brother Rep. Jeff Howe, R-St. Cloud.

Howe’s “regular guy” approach continued right up to the very end on Tuesday: As reporters began to file out of the room, Howe stood at the ready to open the door for them and thank each for coming.


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