The quest to take U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s seat when she retires is deeply unsettled in the starkly Republican suburban and outstate Sixth Congressional District.
Former statewide Republican star Tom Emmer has raised more than $373,000 for the coming congressional battle, $152,000 of it in the last three months, according to a report filed Tuesday.
The haul keeps Emmer’s front-runner status intact — for now. But three other Republicans, with followings of their own, are poised to pounce if he stumbles.
Emmer already has been mocked on the “The Colbert Report,” a national TV show, for a video he cut for a remodeling firm.
The intraparty tussle, which may last well into next summer’s primary, could distract from the expected brutal battle to oust Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken next year.
GOP faithful, still absorbing Bachmann’s razor-thin victory last year, congressional turmoil and local party debt, want peace in their strongest GOP district in Minnesota.
“We need that to be a very strong district that adds to rather than detracts from other Republican races,” said state Rep. Matt Dean, a former Minnesota House majority leader from Dellwood who has considered running for Congress.
The other candidates and their supporters generally acknowledge that Emmer, who lost the 2010 race for governor by a recount-inducing 8,700 votes, is the one to beat.
But they are wooing delegates and loaning themselves campaign cash to compete for the district, making clear Emmer has not closed the deal yet.
Former Taxpayers League president Phil Krinkie, who ran for Congress in 2006 only to be passed over for Bachmann, plunked down $300,000 of his own money to show he’s preparing for the long haul.
“I’ve never run a campaign in the red yet,” said Krinkie, who served 16 years as a representative in the Minnesota House. “I don’t intend to start doing deficit spending now.”
Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah, who has captured local conservative trust and represents a county that includes about a third of the district’s voters, loaned her campaign $150,000 in the last three months. That personal loan made up most of her fundraising.
Ben Golnik, a Republican consultant who worked for Emmer’s GOP opponent in the 2010 governor’s race, said Sivarajah may be poised to siphon off Emmer doubters.
“The one with most upside potential for growing grass-roots support would be with Sivarajah, who is seen as a safe alternative to Emmer,” Golnik said.
Sivarajah, who was the lieutenant governor pick for Emmer’s opponent Marty Seifert three years ago, has taken pains to distance herself from Bachmann’s risky confrontational style.
“I think we have a lot of the same core beliefs. I think the difference is maybe in the approach,” she said this summer.
Add to the mix low-profile Sen. John Pederson, who is working to sweep up support in his voter-rich hometown of St. Cloud and expand his base by showing up at events all across the district.
“My strength is that I’ve won four elections in the last seven or eight years in a district that [is] very difficult for Republicans. I’ve won two state Senate races, I’ve won two City Council races, and I think people appreciate my approach,” said Pederson. He raised $52,000 in the last three months and brought in about $90,000 this year.
While some Republicans still cringe at what they saw as the self-inflicted wounds they think cost Emmer the governor’s race, Emmer backers say he has changed from the man who lost to Dayton three years ago.
“I think he is an even stronger candidate now. I see some of the good things that he always had combined with things that he has picked up and learned,” said former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, of Buffalo.
In an interview this week, Emmer was genial but declined to address the turmoil in Washington.
“My standard answer is: I’m not there,” Emmer said.
As to the video he cut pitching for a remodeling firm, Emmer said only: “It’s been resolved.”
The video, which ran briefly on television, showed Emmer, in his role as a congressional candidate, with his Emmer for Congress banner behind him, giving an endorsement for Integrity Exteriors and Remodelers, a local remodeling company that had done work on his campaign office.
Campaign finance experts say that was an apparent campaign finance violation. Emmer’s campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, includes a $850 debt for “advertising” to the firm.
Although it has not yet led to a campaign finance complaint — and the Federal Election Commission is largely shut down, along with much of the federal government — the ad has led to national mocking.
“I don’t know what Tom Emmer’s platform is, but I know who’s going to build it,” said Stephen Colbert last week on his Comedy Central show, “The Colbert Report.” “Thanks to this ad, I will forever associate your campaign with things that need major renovation.”
Emmer said he has not watched the Colbert piece and likely won’t. But the uproar gave Emmer skeptics renewed reason to question the Delano Republican’s ability to keep steady for the long campaign ahead.
“I think the last week or two provided a reminder of some of the unforced errors of 2010,” Golnik said.
DFL chair Ken Martin said the video may not even be the strongest attack on Emmer.
“I, frankly, think it’s a weak attack,” said Martin.
The DFL does not have an announced candidate in the race, but St. Benedict political science professor Jim Read plans to launch a campaign this week.