State Rep. Tom Emmer's surging campaign wowed Republican delegates on Friday, as the college hockey star-turned politician from Delano easily won his party's endorsement for governor.
While many had expected a long night in a tight race for endorsement, Emmer burst through with more than half the votes needed on the first ballot. When he gained even more ground on the second, his chief foe, Marty Seifert of Marshall, wasted little time in seizing the podium for a quick concession, introducing Emmer as "the next governor of Minnesota."
A grinning Emmer told the crowd: "This is where it begins. This is the journey we are setting off on to take back our state, to take back the country."
The party's nod was a breakthrough moment for a campaign that at times flirted with implosion and raised doubts among Emmer's band of hockey jersey-clad supporters.
But the dynamic Emmer caught fire in the end, besting skilled tactician Seifert, a fellow House member who seemed a clear favorite just two months ago.
Emmer's self-styled outsider campaign -- staffed by consummate insiders -- survived what could have been a dooming clash with a powerful anti-abortion group and criticism for his establishment running-mate pick of Annette Meeks.
A tipping point may been the last-minute endorsement by Republican heartthrob Sarah Palin on Thursday afternoon, just as delegates started filtering into the Minneapolis Convention Center.
In the end, Seifert's quiet, methodical convention floor machinery collapsed under the weight of Emmer's sports-bar charisma and growing list of endorsements. Emmer's win could give new power to a wing of the party that values free-swinging fervor over compromise.
The stakes are unusually high for Republicans, who hope to extend the DFL's 20-year absence from the governor's office. The DFL, eager for a gubernatorial comeback, heads into a three-way Aug. 10 primary. DFL endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the House speaker, will face off against two millionaires who can fund their own campaigns -- former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former state Rep. Matt Entenza, who sidestepped last weekend's DFL's endorsing convention. Emmer, by contrast, has no substantive primary opponent and can prepare for November's general election.
Democrats were quick to respond to Emmer's endorsement.
"This race for governor is about the people and the future of Minnesota, and I believe voters are ready for honest solutions to the issues we face," Kelliher said in a statement. "I look forward to a spirited and civil campaign as we talk to voters all across the state."
Entenza, who just completed a 14-city tour, said Emmer's endorsement gives voters a clear choice.
"We can't cut our way to greatness," Entenza said in a statement. "If Tom Emmer's idea of cutting education and economic development worked, then Mississippi and Alabama would be leading the nation."
Emmer, who had to confirm his conservative credentials again and again to win endorsement, said he could easily appeal to Democrats and independents in a general election.
"We are going to get to know Minnesota, we're going to let Minnesota get to know us better," he said. "We are going to talk about values we believe are important for the state, and that's smaller government, individual liberty and economic freedom. And we will win."
Emmer's win also snuffed out Seifert's political ambitions, at least for now. Seifert, a seven-year House member, who previously led the caucus, will not seek another term.
"I've had a wonderful time in public service," Seifert said in his brief concession speech. "I will go back to the city I love, to the family I love and be Dad again."
Emmer and Seifert received rousing introductions by supporters and offered polished campaign videos and speeches that played to their strengths. Both candidates ended addresses with showers of confetti, while Emmer's featured not only rhetorical but actual fireworks.
Seifert's campaign video featured a montage of childhood pictures and video of him driving his Chevrolet pickup, with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, talking about his belief in frugality and his abiding conservative values.
Emmer's video cut to an idyllic shot of his Delano home and later to Emmer joking around with one of his seven children while wielding a hockey stick. In one scene, Emmer was seen smooching his wife, a moment that drew some awkward laughter from delegates.
"Now is the time to be inspired," Emmer said, adding that the GOP offered the only path back to prosperity. If others criticized them as the Party of No, he said, "There is no shame in saying 'No' to bad ideas."
The battle between Seifert and Emmer came to embody the broader, nationwide war between tested established conservatives and more visceral crusaders eager to wage battle in the cause of smaller government, greater economic freedom and liberty.
Seifert had appeared to be on an unstoppable march toward endorsement until Emmer emerged as a brash, full-throated constitutional conservative, whose freedom-loving message caught the eye of establishment-wary conservatives.
But Emmer also steadily added big Republican names, including Washington lobbyist Vin Weber and one-time gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan. For his running mate, Emmer chose Meeks, a former Washington insider and Minnesota Republican power player. All took some shine off of his outsider appeal, but added to his political might, marrying insurgent attitude and establishment power.
For months, Seifert and Emmer had circled one another, appearing outwardly kind at forums and on the House floor while behind the scenes their surrogates took out the knives, challenging the other candidates' conservative credentials and voting records.
Their worlds collided at the convention.
As one candidate worked delegates, glad-handing, cajoling, smiling and whispering, the other was often just a few steps away doing the same.
At one point, Seifert and a small entourage visited briefly with Carol Dalton, a delegate from International Falls. "He asked for my vote," said Dalton, who was not persuaded. "I'm not supporting anyone right now."
Then she was handed a flier proclaiming that Palin had endorsed Emmer.
"It doesn't do anything for me," she said. "It's not that I don't like Sarah Palin, [but] I don't like to be told by outsiders" how to vote.
In the street fight of convention floor politicking, lieutenants can be as important as generals.
Standing off to the side of the convention, state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, tried to get a delegate to switch his vote to Emmer, trotting out various points before he closed with this: "I just think Emmer's the guy for the moment."
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Pat Doyle contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288 Rachel E. Stassen Berger • 651-292-0164