House Speaker Kurt Daudt is facing the biggest test of his meteoric political career, as he tries to successfully navigate the end of the legislative session and then pivot to a crucial election where he will fight to hold the GOP House majority.
The 42-year-old Republican from Crown is facing sky-high expectations after his rapid rise to what is widely seen as the second most powerful position in state government. Many Republicans increasingly see him as a leading candidate for governor in 2018, pointing to his deft political instincts, strong fundraising abilities and telegenic appearance.
“Would I run for governor in the future? I have no idea,” Daudt said in a recent interview. “If there was a need and people thought I would be the right person to run for a particular position, I would probably look at it.”
First, though, Daudt has to carve out agreements on legislative priorities with Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL leaders who are not about to hand Daudt any easy political victories.
How Daudt navigates these last few weeks of the session could be critical in determining his future in the party. Losing the majority would likely cost him his leadership post and dramatically hobble his political rise. Holding control of the majority would further solidify his role as a top Republican leader.
“When people think about governor for two years from now, they’re going to look for someone who has a proven ability to get votes, a proven ability to get things done, and a proven ability to articulate a clear and conservative agenda,” said Charlie Weaver, president of the Minnesota Business Partnership and former chief of staff to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide office. “Failure to successfully navigate the legislative session or an election wouldn’t help.”
Daudt enters his second legislative session as House leader with a different dynamic from last year, when legislators approved a $42 billion state budget amid a public feud between Dayton and Bakk. The rancor drew attention away from Daudt, who was trying to quickly learn the dynamics of leading a sometimes unruly caucus in a time of divided government.
“This was the benefit of last session,” Daudt said. “I went in with low expectations. Now the expectations of me are through the roof, so I’ve got to really perform.”
Daudt’s political rise hasn’t come without some missteps.
He is still recovering from the political fallout of some personal and financial issues that prompted questions about his maturity and discipline. Daudt began the session with revelations that debt collectors sued him three times in the past year over thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card charges. That came after a 2013 incident when Daudt went to Montana to buy a classic Ford Bronco with a friend and was briefly detained by police — but not charged — after the friend brandished Daudt’s handgun in a confrontation with the seller. Daudt’s friend was charged with three felonies and Daudt scrambled to appease GOP activists in his district who nearly held a vote of no-confidence in his leadership.
Daudt’s rise to caucus leader — first as minority leader — came as Minnesota Republicans suffered bruising defeats. In 2012, they lost majorities in the House and Senate, suffered defeats of two proposed constitutional amendments and were left with the prospect of DFL majorities and a DFL governor.
“At the time when it happened, I felt a bit like the dog that caught the car,” Daudt said. “It was bigger than me just taking over as minority leader at that time. It really was more about, where was the party. I was now entrusted to be the face and voice of the Republican Party in Minnesota.”
In his leadership role, Daudt said he feels responsibility for grooming members for leadership roles — part of an effort to enlarge the bench of GOP candidates who have the skills and experience to win statewide office.
As speaker, Daudt has labored to keep a large caucus united and build its war chest for the critical fall election. In 2015, he raised nearly $1.2 million for the caucus — a record for the House Republican Campaign Committee in a non-election year, a spokeswoman said.
With the fall election still months away, the most pressing and immediate responsibility for Daudt and legislative leaders is how to close the gulf between competing plans for tax cuts, transportation funding and a bonding bill that would pay for capital improvement projects across the state. With the current two-year budget already approved, legislators are under no legal obligation to pass any legislation this year.
DFL legislators, however, say the state’s $900 million budget surplus should go toward more spending on education, particularly a voluntary prekindergarten program championed by Dayton, as well as a robust bonding bill that is nearly twice the size of the $600 million Republicans have proposed.
“Right now, my sense is that we’re not going to get very much done this year, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Republicans are thinking about next fall and the campaign messages that they’re going to run with,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “Kurt is also thinking beyond next fall, and what’s going to set him up for 2018 and doesn’t want to make mistakes this year to undermine that.”
Thissen, the speaker when Democrats controlled the House, criticized Daudt’s performance as caucus leader, saying, “I think he’s been very unambitious for the state and very cautious and not willing to take risks that are going to benefit the state.”
The House speaker post has not been the best springboard to higher office. Former Speakers Kurt Zellers, a Republican, and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a DFLer, made unsuccessful runs for governor in 2014 and in 2010.
Steve Sviggum, former Republican House speaker from 1999 to 2007, said the job often puts the caucus leader at odds with other legislators.
“As speaker you are making hundreds of decisions every day,” Sviggum said. “Your decisions sometimes don’t make other party members happy. They don’t make your own caucus members happy.”
The electorate has also become more polarized, Sviggum said, making it more difficult for a speaker to run for higher office. As a legislative leader, you have to work with political rivals to pass laws.
“In today’s political world, people seem to be more on the extreme end of the political spectrum,” Sviggum said. “They think cooperation or compromise is sometimes a bad word.”
Pat Shortridge, former state GOP party chair, said that while the speaker’s post is a tough position from which to run for governor, “I’m a big believer that if you do an effective job in the position that you have, that other opportunities will become available to you over time.”
He added, however: “It’s always important to keep yourself laser-focused on the job you have, and not worry about something that may or may not happen down the road.”