St. Cloud, Minn.
Regardless of Ron Paul's recent decision not to contest upcoming primaries, his followers in Minnesota within the GOP will be here at the state Republican convention this weekend, hoping to claim their first substantial victory of the election cycle in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate.
Kurt Bills, a 42-year-old high school economics teacher and second-term state representative from Rosemount, is the choice for the Paul faction. Bills received an early endorsement from Paul himself, and support from Paul’s Minnesota organization—who now call themselves the “liberty” crowd—followed. Some observers estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of the delegates slated to attend the state convention are Paul supporters, meaning Bills is the inside favorite to win the GOP nomination today. The winner will face Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, in the general election.
Bills will need 60 percent support to win the nomination. He's being challenged for the Republican nomination by Pete Hegseth and Dan Severson.
Hegseth, a 31-year-old war veteran and former director of Vets for Freedom, jumped into the race relatively late, in March (he was serving overseas in Afghanistan), but his national profile and support from mainstream and establishment Republicans catapulted him into contention. He raised $160,000 in his first month of campaigning alone.
Conventional wisdom is that Hegseth offers a better shot against Bills than does Severson, a well-known former state representative and candidate for secretary of state who nonetheless has failed to match Hegseth and Bills in fundraising, despite running for a year and a half already. But Severson, a retired Navy pilot, has loyal supporters and has made up for his lack of resources with on-the-ground retail politics—just the sort of thing delegates at a nominating convention might find attractive.
Convention events, too, could have plenty of influence over the delegate vote. The charismatic Hegseth may have a chance to consolidate the non-Bills vote with a rousing speech, says Ben Golnik, a GOP strategist in Minnesota.
So can Bills expand his support beyond his Paulite base, a task the namesake presidential candidate struggled with during his run? “That’s the million dollar question,” says Larry Colson, a Republican activist and delegate who says he is undecided in the race but is leaning toward Bills. Colson says that if Bills wins at least 50 percent on the first ballot, the nomination is all but his. “I think it’s very likely he could,” Colson adds.
Bills’s path to 60 percent may run through the state legislature, from whose members he’s reportedly receiving increased support. Golnik says that in some districts, delegates could follow their state legislators and throw their support toward Bills; in others, particularly those districts in the more rural areas of the state, the delegates may not be so easily led toward Bills.
Still, the margin for error is thin for the Hegseth and Severson campaigns, which have been scurrying in the last week to pick up support from the non-Paulite delegates. Hegseth’s main pitch? That Bills is too closely tied to Paul—and Paul’s views on foreign policy. It’s a charge Bills has done much to disavow. “I’m a Kurt Bills Republican,” he likes to say. But Bills was one of Paul’s earliest and most vocal supporters during the presidential caucuses, introducing Paul several times to Minnesota Republican audiences.
If Hegseth can convince Severson supporters to join with him and urge soft Bills supporters to consider the latter's Paul connection, the young political rookie could pull off a win, or at least deny Bills the endorsement and force a competitive primary.