ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden raised $765,000 in the inaugural month of his bid to take on Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, he sent an important signal about his ability to compete in a high-profile race that will depend heavily on money.
But prowess with donors alone is no guarantee that McFadden, a successful businessman and political newcomer, will be the party's choice to challenge Franken. Jim Abeler, a veteran state representative, is already in the race, and state Sen. Julianne Ortman — another longtime lawmaker — said she will announce her plans soon.
Lawmakers like Abeler and Ortman have long voting records that help define them as candidates, but McFadden has been a blank slate politically. The wealthy co-CEO of a financial services firm has held no public events since joining the race in late May, but he is starting to speak out about issues and strategy in one-on-one interviews.
"I knew it was important that we get out and raise money, so I worked hard on it," McFadden told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "And the message of let's make government more effective, let's focus on job creation, let's focus on education, let's have a health care system that works — that is really resonating, and it's causing people to open their pocketbooks and contribute to this campaign."
Both McFadden and Abeler have said they'd pursue the GOP's endorsement in the race, but might still run in the primary without it. Abeler acknowledged he hasn't come close to matching McFadden's early fundraising. "You can be the front-runner in the marathon after a mile, but that doesn't say a lot about where you are at the end of the race," he said.
The race is among the broader contest for Senate control. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to flip the majority in their favor, and so far Minnesota hasn't ranked among the top targets.
The list of McFadden donors reads like a who's-who of Minnesota business elite. It includes CEOs of companies including Target, Polaris, Schwan's and Slumberland, as well as numerous leaders and executives at companies big and small, and several dozen bankers, financial planners, investors and other businesspeople. Many contributed the legal maximum, meaning he won't be able to tap them again for more dollars. McFadden said many also committed to help him raise more funds.
Chris Heim, CEO of Eden Prairie-based 2ndWave Software, is among those who gave the fullest amount possible.
"I've known Mike since college, I've known him in the business world and so when I saw he was running I contacted him to donate money," Heim said. "I really consider myself an independent, but partisanship is what is really turning me off in a big way and I think Mike is pragmatic and would look for solutions."
Support from donors like that will be necessary to keep up with Franken, one of the Democratic Party's most successful fundraisers. He took in nearly $2 million from April through June of this year, and as of July 1 had $3 million in the bank. In 2008, Franken and incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman combined spent almost $50 million in their hard-fought contest that ended with a statewide recount and an ensuing legal challenge that finally saw Franken win by 312 votes out of nearly 3 million cast.
A close examination of McFadden's campaign report shows plenty of donors already gave top dollar toward a potential general election campaign, putting about one-third of McFadden's money off-limits unless he secures the GOP nomination.
While Franken's fundraising totals lean heavier on a greater number of individual donors giving smaller amounts, he also boasts powerful fundraising connections: in April, late-night TV host Conan O'Brien hosted a fundraising event at his home to benefit Franken's campaign.
But the race will come down to more than money. To that end, McFadden has started to flesh out his positions on top issues. He takes a traditional Republican line on some, saying he wouldn't vote for tax increases and lining himself up as against abortion rights.
But he steered a middle course on some hot-button issues. On immigration, McFadden said any changes to immigration law would have to start with securing U.S. borders, but said he isn't opposed to finding a way for millions of immigrants now here illegally to obtain citizenship.
"As Republicans, we need to get our arms around this," McFadden said. He said he wants to see "outreach to the Hispanic community, because if they're not already Republicans they have the potential to be great Republicans because they have strong family values, they're entrepreneurial, they work hard, they're industrious. We need to appeal to them."
While describing himself as a strong believer in gun rights, McFadden also said he could vote for widening background checks for gun purchases.
"It does bother me that someone who couldn't pass a background check at Walmart could then go right down to a gun show and buy a gun," McFadden said. "So I would consider expanded background checks, specifically closing that gun show loophole."
McFadden said if he's elected and Republicans control the Senate, he'd support a bill to repeal President Obama's health-care overhaul — "but that would have to be in conjunction with real solutions. We do need to address costs and accessibility. The fact that there's Americans with pre-existing conditions who can't get access to insurance is wrong. Most Republicans think that's wrong. We need to address that, but not by nationalizing 20 percent of the economy."
A major field of debate between Franken and his opponent is likely to be how to reduce the national debt. McFadden said Congress has to tackle the costs of Social Security and Medicare, and he suggested one way could be raising the eligibility age of 65 for both programs.
"Not for people near the retirement age now — that's not fair because they don't have time to change their planning," McFadden said. "But it seems to me that some conversation around some age, and below, that the age upon which you receive these benefits would increase. The logic behind this would be that the mortality rate has gone up since those programs were created."
Democrats have already seized on McFadden's comments about changing entitlement programs. Franken has said Social Security should be off the table.