In 1978, Republicans in Minnesota, astonishingly, won all three statewide races: both Senate seats and the governorship. It became known by DFLers (Democrats here run as Democratic-Farmer-Laborites) as the “Minnesota massacre.” Republicans preferred to call it their Minnesota miracle. This year they’re looking for another miracle. One Senate seat is up, as is the governorship, and the DFL incumbents are widely expected to win. If an upset is possible, it might be in the Senate race.
Republican businessman Mike McFadden has not previously run for public office, but the 48-year-old investment banker has been successful in a rags-to-riches life that began in St. Paul. He has a picture-perfect large Catholic family, an exuberant personality, and years of coaching low-income kids at a school in Minneapolis to add to an outstanding record in business.
Although he attracted big-name Minnesota Republican support (including from former senators Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman) in his quest to unseat Democrat Al Franken, McFadden had competition for the GOP nomination, most notably from state senator Julianne Ortman from suburban Minneapolis and county commissioner Chris Dahlberg from the northern Range area.
The McFadden team made an early decision not to seek endorsement at the state GOP convention in late May but to win the nomination in the August primary. Ortman soon emerged as the favorite to win endorsement as she aggressively attacked Franken on his first-term record and raised $1 million. The tone and aim of her campaign was directed to the most conservative wing of the Republican party, expected to have the most influence at the convention. Dahlberg had a few influential early backers and was the most conservative major candidate in the race, but he had limited campaign funds and was mostly unknown outside his district.
Ortman’s energetic campaign, however, evidently did not persuade most conservatives at the convention. Instead, they went for Dahlberg. He led on the first and subsequent ballots, until almost the end. Surprisingly, McFadden was in second, although he had not committed to honoring the convention’s choice for endorsement. Normally this would be fatal in Minnesota politics, but several weeks before the convention, McFadden began personally contacting delegates (although he still did not commit to honoring the convention’s choice).
Late in the evening of the first day of the convention, after several ballots, Ortman was eliminated. The two finalists were called to the podium for five minutes of extemporaneous remarks. McFadden, who had been carefully scripted to this point in the campaign (and thus tended to come across as wooden and uninspiring), gave a short, passionate speech that many delegates later said changed their minds. The convention was then adjourned until the next morning.
The following day, with many delegates (presumably those who had supported now-eliminated candidates) having left Rochester to return home, almost 200 alternate delegates were seated, and after the next ballot it became clear that McFadden had the majority. Dahlberg then withdrew, and to the surprise of most political and media observers, first-time candidate McFadden had shattered the usually ironclad rule that candidates who do not pledge to honor the party endorsement don’t win endorsement.
McFadden thus no longer faces serious competition in the August primary. Although he was expected to win the primary against a convention-endorsed opponent, he would then, with depleted resources and presumably hard feelings from the primary contest, have had to face a well-funded incumbent with only 12 weeks before Election Day.
Franken defeated Norm Coleman by the narrowest of margins in 2008 following a long and bitter recount. He was actually not sworn in until July 2009, and many Minnesotans still feel Coleman actually won the race, and that the final outcome was determined by the lawyers, and not the voters.
After taking office, Franken eschewed his well-known identity as a TV comedian and maintained a low-key and down-to-business approach, allowing the state’s popular senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, to get most of the headlines. He consistently backed President Obama and Senate leader Harry Reid, including a vote for the unpopular Obamacare, which includes a harmful tax on medical device technology companies. Minnesota happens to be home to many of the largest such firms, and both Klobuchar and Franken have voiced their opposition to the tax, but to no avail: Reid has ignored their pleas.
Polls show that Klobuchar is the most popular statewide Minnesota elected official; DFL governor Mark Dayton runs second and Franken third. While maintaining their leads over any Republican opponents, both Dayton and Franken are now under 50 percent support in most polls.
In spite of his surprising success at the GOP convention, and his ability to match Franken in fundraising, McFadden remains an underdog. He is largely unknown to most voters and must face the formidable DFL get-out-the-vote operation, one of the best in the nation. Rudy Boschwitz argues, however, that McFadden “is a fast learner and incredibly hard worker.” He points out that McFadden has “already campaigned in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties.” Although he has done well in early fundraising, McFadden almost certainly will have to at least partially self-fund to remain competitive. The Franken campaign will no doubt try to “Mitt Romney” McFadden as a rich banker, but McFadden’s humble origins and Franken’s own multimillionaire status might make this approach backfire. McFadden argues that his lack of political experience, but wealth of business experience, makes him the kind of “outsider” who can have an impact in the nation’s capital.
With first-time GOP candidate Stewart Mills mounting a serious challenge to DFL incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan in the state’s northeastern 8th Congressional District, and the likelihood of GOP gains in, even possible renewed control of, the state house of representatives, 2014 is taking shape as a potentially good year for Minnesota Republicans, although perhaps not as good as 1978. President Obama’s popularity (he carried the state twice) has plummeted thanks in large part to Obamacare. Minnesota’s high taxes (raised even higher by the Dayton administration) are causing many affluent individuals, small businesses, and corporations to leave the state. A recent incipient economic recovery in the largest cities has not reached the rest of the state.
Franken would likely be reelected if the vote were held now. He has solid support from the DFL establishment, and on paper has a formidable get-out-the-vote apparatus. On the other hand, his transition from comedian to political insider means he must defend some unpopular votes. As Norm Coleman puts it, “Franken is an integral part of the dysfunction and mess in Washington. Al is now the problem; Mike can offer himself as the solution.”
Mike McFadden pulled off one small miracle at the GOP convention. If he can pull off the bigger one of winning back one of the state’s Senate seats in November, he might help change control of the U.S. Senate back to the Republicans this fall.
Barry Casselman has reported on national politics since 1972. His Prairie Editor website is at barrycasselman.com.