Last month when the federal government was shuttered and negotiations stalled, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate who came to mind was state Rep. Jim Abeler.
Abeler is the rare politician who seems to enjoy engineering bipartisan compromise. Several times during 15 years in the Minnesota House, he's been willing to hold his nose and vote for a DFL-crafted bill because he knew that vote was the price of admission to the conference committee table. As a conferee, he'd have a chance to reshape the bill into one he and other Republicans could stomach. Every now and then, he did just that — and it was fun to watch the fun he had doing it.
This month when the defects in President Obama's rhetoric and rollout of his signature domestic-policy initiative became all too apparent, the state rep from Anoka again came to mind.
A chiropractor by profession, Abeler knows health care. He's spent more time at the intersection of government and health than anyone else in the 2014 Senate race, including the incumbent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
Abeler's expertise showed when I finally caught up with him last week. The problem with Obamacare is that it's too much like the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association (MCHA), he allowed. That's an insightful point — if you know what MCHA is and what its funding problem has been. He was employing Legislaturespeak, a foreign language to most Minnesotans.
But Abeler demonstrated that while making his first bid for statewide office at age 59, he's become conversant in Candidate-ese too. He translated his MCHA point: "The cost of extending insurance to everybody under Obamacare is on the backs of the individual and small-group market. That's not fair. All the big people got carved out — big hospitals, big medicine, big companies, big pharma. They're all good to go. Who isn't? The small businesses are getting pounded, and the people who are hearing that their policies are being canceled."
He's sure he could help design something better. He's confident that he can tie Franken to Obamacare in a general election and offer an alternative that would appeal to swing voters. He's made 165 campaign stops since June asking Republican voters to give him that chance.
The Republican convention crowd evidently hasn't warmed to his entreaty. At the Oct. 26 GOP state convention, Abeler came in fifth in a six-way straw poll, trailing the leader, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, by a yawning 26 percentage points.
I wasn't in the convention hall in Blaine that day to read the delegates' minds at close range. But my guess is that they remember 2008, when Abeler was one of six House Republicans who stood with DFLers to override then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase.
Not so long ago, a showing like that among the Republican Party's powerfolk would send Abeler back to District 35A to look for his stash of old legislative lawn signs. GOP discipline, enforced with the help of the anti-abortion lobby, demanded that the party's endorsement be the final word on candidate selection. Suggesting that an endorsing convention is a mere pit stop on the way to the primary finish line was heresy guaranteeing a short campaign.
But here's why the summer of 2014 looks to be a highly entertaining season for state politics fans: The Republican Party has rediscovered the primary election.
Maybe 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills' 30.5 percent showing was the last straw. Maybe, despite the state GOP's gradual climb out of the debt ditch into which its now-departed leaders drove it, big-money donors still don't consider the party a good investment. Maybe Republicans have noticed that the DFL has acquired the habit of deciding intraparty nomination contests in primaries, and they've been winning elections.
For whatever reason, several serious contenders in both the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races say that, while they'll pay their respects at the state convention, they won't end their candidacies there. That was the position taken last week by the newcomer to the GOP gubernatorial race, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert. Some of the same sentiment is turning up in the GOP's Sixth District congressional race. Will GOP legislative candidates suddenly become as obdurate? (Will state political journalists get a summer vacation next year?)
Abeler says he's 95 percent sure he's in the U.S. Senate race through the Aug. 12 primary.
He dispatches the gas-tax critics with a few short blasts. "The state Constitution gives state government only three duties, public safety, education and transportation." And "the money I voted for has fixed 172 bridges statewide." And "isn't it nice that you can drive home on a bridge you can trust?"
That response may not cut it if the defining issue in a GOP U.S. Senate primary is "no new taxes." As a former state Senate tax chair, Ortman's got the edge in tax expertise. If the thing boils down to the kind of political identity money can buy, businessman Mike McFadden is going to be formidable. He's already raised $1.5 million.
But if the issue is reining in government spending, Abeler's got that covered. The omnibus human services bill he shepherded into law in 2011 is responsible for trimming all-funds state spending by $3.8 billion over the last four years, without causing wholesale harm to vulnerable people, he says. If the issue is ability to woo and win swing voters, he can point to margins of victory of 58 percent or more every year since 2004.
If the issue is ability to craft a "temperate Republican" way forward on health care — and Abeler thinks it will be — he's ready. He thinks his party's fixation on repealing the Affordable Care Act should give way to concrete ideas gleaned from the state where health care works — not Massachusetts this time, but Minnesota.
"We need to import Minnesota ideas into the health system. It's pricing in a way that looks at the total cost of care. It's medical homes that coordinate treatment. It's caring for low-income people through community clinics. It's covering preventative care. We take that as normal — but it's not the norm around the country.
"Obamacare went wrong when it focused entirely on access, and not on cost and quality. Now we have to address cost and quality, or the access won't be there, either. In Minnesota, we know how to do that. I've been part of making that happen."
It's tougher to get things done in Washington, I allowed, citing the still-unresolved budget dispute. At the mention of the shutdown, his wistful smile was like that of a kid hearing about the new Xbox One: "I keep wishing I was there."
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.