Former WCCO-TV news anchor Don Shelby is weighing a run against three-term Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen next year, potentially putting in play a suburban Minneapolis congressional district that has been in Republican hands for decades.
Shelby’s interest burst into the open amid remarks by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who mentioned it at a Washington fundraiser Wednesday attended by about 30 or 40 campaign contributors, lobbyists and Democratic activists.
Peterson’s account of Shelby’s interest was confirmed by two prominent Minnesota lobbyists who were at the luncheon. Both said Peterson praised Shelby’s long career in Minnesota broadcast journalism.
Shelby, 66, did not respond to e-mailed interview requests from the Star Tribune. He did issue a statement to BringMeTheNews.com, where he is a contributing author, saying that he has been asked frequently to run for public office — and not just by Democrats.
“I’ve been asked,” Shelby told the website Thursday. “I’m flattered. It’s worth thinking about, but I haven’t in any way made up my mind.”
Added Shelby: “It’s not unusual … I’ve been asked 30 times in the past to run for public office from all three parties.”
Democrats have been tight-lipped about Shelby’s possible entry into the race, but they made clear Thursday that they would welcome a respected Twin Cities figure with almost universal name recognition across the state.
“I don’t know if he’s in or not,” DFL Chair Ken Martin said. “If he is considering his options, I don’t think there’s any question that he’d be a very strong candidate against Congressman Paulsen. The fact is, if he gets in the race, [the district] would become an immediate target for Democrats, not only in this state, but around the country.”
Several DFL sources said Shelby has been courted in Washington as a potentially game-changing candidate who does well in internal polls of potential candidates.
Paulsen, a former Minnesota House Republican leader, presents a formidable challenge for Democrats. He has amassed a $1.3 million war chest and has positioned himself as a pro-business champion of the influential medical device industry in his district. He won re-election last year with 58 percent of the vote.
Paulsen campaign spokesman Jean-Paul Yates played down Shelby’s possible entry. “The election is well over a year away, and Congressman Paulsen is totally focused on working for his constituents,” he said.
Paulsen represents a suburban swing district that was carried by President Obama last year, making him one of 16 Republicans around the nation to hold seats that went Democratic in the last presidential election. And while Paulsen’s fundraising would be hard for most political newcomers to match, Democratic strategists say a candidate with Shelby’s unique media profile would not need to match the GOP dollar for dollar to get his message out to voters.
That has sparked interest among Democrats nationally as well. A Democratic congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Shelby has been on a “wish list” of prospects for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the political arm of the House Democrats.
A spokesman for the DCCC declined to comment Thursday, as did Cheryl Poling, the DFL chairwoman for Minnesota’s Third District, which includes much of the western Twin Cities suburbs where Shelby lives.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the race, and there have been quite a few names brought forward,” Poling said. “I think it would be wonderful to see a strong person step forward.”
In recent years, Shelby has emerged as a promoter of renewable energy, conservation and preserving the environment, particularly the Mississippi River. He and his wife, Barbara, were profiled a year ago in their efforts to build an energy-efficient home.
In a long and storied career as an investigative journalist, Shelby earned Peabody and Emmy awards. A native of Indiana, he came to WCCO-TV in 1978 as a news reporter, helped create WCCO-TV’s “I-Team” and eventually assumed the anchor chair from legendary Twin Cities newsman Dave Moore. He also branched into an afternoon radio show on WCCO-AM before retiring from broadcasting in 2010.
Shelby remains a relative newcomer to the political scene. He has not pumped money into Democratic campaign coffers. But his activism on the environment and other issues that tend to line up with Democrats has prompted activists in Republican circles to dub him “DFL Don.”
“I doubt that Don’s coming out as a Democrat will be news to some viewers in his audience,” said former WCCO colleague Tom Steward, a Republican media strategist and journalist. “He certainly has name recognition.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz.