Pete Hegseth, a 31-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and the former director of Vets for Freedom, may be the GOP’s best chance to defeat Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s first-term Democratic senator. But he first has to win the endorsement of the state Republican party.
The state convention is on May 18 and 19. Hegseth’s chief primary opponent is freshman state representative and high school economics teacher Kurt Bills. The 42-year-old Bills, known primarily for his advocacy of returning to a gold standard, has the support of Ron Paul and what’s left of his presidential organization in Minnesota—launching him into contention to win the GOP nomination and bringing the Texas congressman’s powerful fundraising operation into the mix.
“The one word to describe it is, ‘momentum,’” Bills says. “We’ve built a massive grassroots movement.”
But what matters most at the moment is how well Bills and Hegseth are doing among state party delegates. A candidate needs to win 60 percent of the convention delegates to earn the Minnesota Republican party’s endorsement, a key step to winning the state’s nomination. There is a primary on August 14, but Hegseth has said he would abide by the endorsement of the party and would drop out if another candidate wins at the convention.
So how strong is the Ron Paul organization in Minnesota, and how will it help Bills? Recently, the Minnesota Paulites grabbed 20 of the state’s 24 committed delegates to the Republican National Convention, despite the fact that Paul was only projected to win about half of those delegates based on the results of the state’s non-binding presidential caucus. The Bills campaign believes 40 to 45 percent of the delegates to the state GOP convention are tied to the Paul organization and will support Bills for the party’s endorsement.
On the contrary, Hegseth’s camp says, the math works in their favor, and Bills may have less than 40 percent support. Still, they certainly don’t want to take any chances. “What we want to do is make sure people know the connection between Kurt Bills and Ron Paul,” says Hegseth spokesman Kyler Nerison. “There are a lot of aspects to [Bills’s] views that are not palatable to the Republican party as a whole.”
The Hegseth team argues that Paul’s foreign policy views and fierce libertarianism is at odds with the views of most Minnesota Republicans, and Bills’s close connection to Paul would doom the GOP’s chance of defeating Klobuchar in the fall. Bills protests that he’s not a full-on “Ron Paul Republican,” even though he was among Paul’s most active supporters in Minnesota and enthusiastically introduced him at campaign events ahead of the presidential caucuses there.
Bills says he aligns with Paul predominantly on economic issues. “We’re all Ron Paul fans on economics,” says Bills’s campaign manager, Mike Osskopp. When it comes to talking about foreign policy, Bills says, Israel is an important ally and America ought not retreat from the world stage, contrasting himself from some of Paul’s well-known foreign policy stances. But, Bills adds, Republicans have to campaign in 2012 on issues regarding federal spending and the economy, not world affairs.
“That’s not what we win on in November,” Bills says. Osskopp puts it more bluntly.
“Nobody cares anymore,” he says. “We’re all a little weary of war.”
But war and military experience, the Bills camp says, are what Hegseth is largely trading on as a candidate. Hegseth has said as much, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune earlier this year that his service overseas has influenced his sense of leadership.
"War has taught me, repeatedly, some very, very important lessons," Hegseth said, "among them that time is precious and what we have in this country is worth fighting for."
Hegseth launched his Senate campaign in March, after having returned from his last tour in Afghanistan, and raised over $160,000 his first month on the trail. Klobuchar, a reliable liberal vote for the Democratic majority in the Senate, is popular in Minnesota, but Hegseth says he can make the case that the senator’s moderate image at home contrasts with her voting record in Washington. Minnesotans, Hegseth’s thinking goes, just need to learn how liberal that record is.