We return to look at the nascent Minnesota GOP race for U.S. Senate. We broke down the GOP governor’s battle royale here.
While the Minnesota GOP governor’s race has attracted most of the attention from the state’s punditry and conservative activists, the race for U.S. Senate has been at best a political red-headed stepchild – an electoral Clint Howard. A bevy of unheralded candidates and little money raised hasn’t fundamentally altered the state of the race since July. This despite the increasingly polling weakness of Sen. Al Franken.
Much like the man who he’ll likely be sharing the top of the DFL ticket with, Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Al Franken has seen his approval rating collapse, with the last six months essentially undo six years of polling gains following his contested 312-vote margin of victory. Franken’s approval rating has dipped to 39%, with a bare majority of 51% disapproving. Ideologically sympathetic pollsters have pegged Franken’s percentages much higher, but his 10-12% early head-to-head numbers against a mostly unknown GOP field suggests Minnesota’s junior senator hasn’t found the political elixir that Sen. Amy Klobuchar rode to victory just a scant 12+ months ago. The question remains whether Republicans can take advantage.
If the GOP Senate field is trying to find a dwarf among midgets, St. Sen. Julianna Ortman is certainly standing on her toes. The clear winner of October’s State Central straw poll with a commanding 37%, Ortman has positioned herself as the nomination’s front-runner. Lingering attacks on her resume and her role in the Hennepin County cell phone surveillance program known as “KingFish” further confirm that Ortman is widely considered the GOP’s leading contender, even if most of the attacks are being ignored outside of Michael Brodkorb’s latest web enterprise.
Ortman’s lead with the activist set shouldn’t be surprising. Her lifetime and recent ratings with conservative organizations like Minnesota Majority, the Taxpayers League and the Chamber of Commerce are all ranked in the 90s. And Ortman seems to be the only serious candidate actively courting the nomination. But in a race that currently looks more likely to be settled in August than May, Ortman significantly trails in what likely is the most important category – fundraising. Ortman has $88,000 cash on hand and has raised only slightly over $100,000. By contrast, Al Franken has $3.8 million in his account.
The ability to close the fundraising gap may be businessman Mike McFadden‘s only claim to relevancy in this contest. McFadden has raised $1.5 million (with $1.2 million cash on hand) since entering the race this summer, and much like Scott Honour, has kept up a high online visibility with web ad purchases. But that’s about all he’s done. McFadden’s lukewarm 21.6% of the straw poll vote reflects a campaign that has done little to engage would-be delegates. That might be by design after a disastrous rollout in late August that left activists feeling that McFadden was ill-informed on key issues at best. McFadden’s website remains barren when it comes to issues, with his only campaign calling card being an ability to secure endorsements from past Minnesota Republican senators. Thus far, Norm Coleman, Rudy Boschwitz and the late Rod Grams all threw their support behind McFadden.
County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg would likely bristle at the suggestion his candidacy is more “pretender” than “contender” at this point. Short of Ortman, Dahlberg has been probably the most active candidate courting activists with a schedule more befitting November 2014 than December 2013. And Dahlberg has the support of local broadcast magnate Stanley Hubbard, suggesting he might (might) have some financial strength to wield. But a disappointing fourth place (and 12.4) in the straw poll hasn’t helped a candidacy that needs a boost to be elevated above the ranks of the also-rans.
Speaking of which, former army chaplin and ’06 & ’12 candidate Harold Shudlick crashed the straw poll party in October, taking a surprising 12.7% and third place. Appealing to the Liberty or Ron Paul wing of the party, Shudlick toasted nearly 10 years of senate seeking (he first announced a candidacy back in 2003) with his most relevant showing short of his 16% at the 2006 GOP convention. Shudlick has done nothing to follow-up on his entrance – no website, no outreach. Nadda.
Shudlick’s ability to rally the Liberty Wing had to rankle St. Rep. Jim Abeler, who endorsed Paul in 2012 and has been aggressively attempting to re-create the scenario that gave Kurt Bills the nomination. We’ve commented before that Abeler is a odd vessel for Ron Paul supporters to pour their efforts into, given Abeler’s more liberal than libertarian views on many issues. Abeler’s raised a paltry $50,000 – a far cry from the $500,000 he claimed he needed to raise to be taken seriously. Given that Abeler planned a fundraiser this month for either his Senate candidacy or re-election to the State House, the Anoka representative may not be long for the race.
Last and likely least, Stillwater hairdresser and ’96 candidate Monti Moreno, who was previously seen wielding a musket and terrifying MPR 18 years ago, has re-emerged on the political scene. Moreno might have the most detailed issues page of any of the candidates, but his lack of funds and 2.5% showing at the straw poll likely mean that other than media fodder, little will be said of his candidacy.
So Where Do Things Stand?
We’re a far cry from July when we suggested that McFadden was close to locking up the contest. Despite being the only candidate raising the funds necessary to compete, McFadden is either shockingly still not ready for prime-time or willing to concede the GOP endorsement. Or both.
One aspect of our commentary from July remains true – this race is borderline forgotten. 527 groups are already lining up their 2014 targets, and while Franken remains theoretically vulnerable, without the appearance of a legitimate challenger, the outside funds needed to oust an incumbent likely won’t appear. Either Ortman has to have a significant fourth quarter haul ($500,000+) or McFadden has to perform strongly in the February caucuses. If neither happens and both major candidates continue to plod along, be prepared for another six years of Sen. Al Franken.