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ST. CLOUD - Marking a profound change of direction among Minnesota conservatives, state Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed Rep. Kurt Bills, a high school economics teacher and disciple of libertarian firebrand Ron Paul, as their U.S. Senate candidate.
Bills, 42, rode a powerful surge of Paul supporters at Friday's state convention, trouncing mainstream rivals Pete Hegseth, an Afghanistan war vet, and Dan Severson, a former lawmaker and retired Navy fighter pilot.
Barely 15 months into his first term, the Rosemount legislator now finds himself heading into a national race against one of the best-financed, most popular U.S. senators in the country, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who is seeking a second term.
But Bills didn't let that stop him from laying into his new rival.
"We sent a lawyer, a community organizer and a comedian to Washington, D.C., and we get an economy that looks like it does today," Bills said, referring to Klobuchar, President Obama and U.S. Sen. Al Franken. "Finally, we're going to send an econ teacher and see what happens."
Bills' win comes after months of sometimes vicious intra-party fighting, with Paul supporters slugging it out against established state Republican leaders for a more prominent role.
The convention also is giving traumatized Republicans a chance to re-energize after a ghastly year that brought news of $2 million in previously undisclosed debt, a near-eviction from the party's St. Paul headquarters, a scandal that ousted its Senate leadership and intense scrutiny that prompted the resignation of former GOP Chairman Tony Sutton.
The party's grim financial standing cast a sometimes bitter pall over the convention, particularly among many new delegates who had no idea the party was so deeply in debt. They spent part of the afternoon enacting measures to tighten financial controls, make it easier to impeach a wayward chairman and ensure that the party treasurer is an experienced financial manager.
"If this would have been a traditional company, we would have filed for bankruptcy," GOP Treasurer Brons Scherer said coldly.
A daunting task
Bills now is left with the daunting task of quickly assembling a massive statewide campaign, a political machine far more complex than his legislative race. He will be subjected to a searing level of public and media scrutiny that has ground down far more seasoned candidates. He also must immediately begin reeling in millions of dollars for the race against Klobuchar, who is known as a relentless fundraiser. She has already amassed a $5 million war chest and is well regarded among business leaders who typically back Republicans.
Republicans hope voters will see Bills as a fresh face, unspoiled by Washington.
"People are looking for people of different backgrounds, unique experiences," Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said. "Our folks are excited to band together to get rid of this agenda in Washington, D.C.: more government, higher taxes, government destroying all the things that made America unique."
Bills came into the convention as the clear favorite. While his rivals had modest hospitality suites to woo delegates, Bills rented a giant room for 300, featuring a red, white and blue campaign bus already emblazoned with "Kurt Bills for U.S. Senate" long before balloting began. The night before the convention, he had a string quartet entertain delegates who stopped by to meet him, his wife, Cindy, and their four children.
Bills has given few specifics on his proposals, but says he wants to shrink the federal deficit, clamp down on the Federal Reserve Bank and repeal Obama's health care overhaul. He staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage, but says that states -- not the federal government -- should decide whether to approve civil unions.
"We need to stand up and face the giants that we've been staring down for about a decade," Bills said, ticking off entitlement reform, the federal deficit and the trade deficit as key issues. "I think there's an absolute populist movement right now to solve these problems."
Steve and Wendy Gelle of Zimmerman, Minn., had never been to a convention before, but said that Ron Paul and Kurt Bills inspired them to get engaged in the GOP and shake up the system.
"We can't keep doing the same old same old," Steve Gelle said. "We should have been involved a long time ago," Wendy Gelle said. "My eyes are wide open now."
Many of Bills' volunteers were former students, such as 19-year-old Sami Massey, who worked the Bills information table outside the convention hall.
She learned about the looming U.S. debt from him, she said. When he ran for local and then state office, Massey said, he had the enthusiastic backing of his former students. Now that he's taking to the national stage, she said, they will be behind him again.
Bills, who served one term each in state and local government, pledged to limit himself to two terms at the national level. Washington, he said, needs more citizen lawmakers.
"I'm telling you right now, you're putting a guy forward who has a work ethic that's second to none," he said. "If you ask anybody I've ever worked with, whether it's building houses, building roads, my econ curriculum, building a wrestling program, I put 110 percent behind everything I've ever done."
John Quinn came to the convention from St. Paul with a Bills campaign sticker on his shirt.
"I think he has a good shot," said Quinn, whose hat had "Life, Liberty and Property" stitched on the brim and Ron Paul's signature scrawled on top. Gesturing to the words, Quinn smiled. "Bills stands for that."
Shortly after Bills' victory, Republicans roared as Paul ambled onto the stage to speak.
"A lot of friends of liberty in this town," he said to thunderous applause. "Congratulations for joining the revolution."
After Paul's speech and chants of "President Paul, President Paul," Shortridge smiled as the presidential candidate stepped off the stage to greet well-wishers.
"Are you guys having fun?" Shortridge yelled, to rousing applause. "Even though we don't have money, we still know how to throw a party."
Republicans will reconvene Saturday to pick delegates to this summer's Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044
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