On the Minnesota State Fair’s final day, Mike McFadden stood flanked by two Independence Party leaders who endorsed the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, praising his business savvy and the pragmatism they said could prove useful in breaking Washington’s partisan gridlock.
By Tuesday, McFadden stood in the lobby of a Plymouth factory next to Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative businessman who came out of the Tea Party movement. Johnson, who like McFadden had no political experience before running for Senate, defeated Democrat Russ Feingold for the seat in 2010 and has been a reliable party vote ever since.
It’s a wide swath of support in two days for the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Al Franken, whom McFadden constantly blasts for voting with President Obama 97 percent of the time. The moves allow McFadden to appeal to independent voters in the middle while also cultivating the GOP base by aligning with a Republican who ousted a liberal icon on his first try.
Straddling that divide between right and center could prove critical to McFadden’s chances.
“In order to be successful in a state like Minnesota, McFadden would have to persuade and mobilize independent-leaning voters while at the same time ensure that the most conservative Republican voters are behind him as well,” said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “As an elected official from a neighboring state, Ron Johnson has a certain amount of credibility that he lends to McFadden.”
Standing next to Johnson on Tuesday, McFadden ditched his trademark campaign uniform of jeans and casual button-down for a crisp navy suit, looking every the part the senator. Johnson took questions for about six minutes before McFadden appeared.
Asked whether more ground troops are needed in Iraq and Syria in the wake of news of a second American journalist’s beheading by terrorists, Johnson stopped short of giving a direct answer.
“We currently have boots on the ground, so I recognize the reality; we need to understand that ISIS is a growing threat,” Johnson said. “It just highlights again what barbarians these people are. … I don’t envy the president and his task in this. These are complex issues and a complex area of the world, and it’s been that way for decades.”
McFadden, asked separately, was more direct.
“I don’t support boots on the ground, not at this point,” he said. “I do support the continuation of strategic bombing in Iraq and potentially in Syria, if necessary. I can tell you what I wouldn’t have done: I wouldn’t have gone on vacation as the president without meeting with military leaders and having a strategy for ISIS.”
Asked whether his position on the Middle Eastern crisis differs from Franken’s, McFadden said, “What I’m criticizing is President Obama’s complete lack of foreign policy, and Senator Franken has supported the president all the way.”
Franken on Tuesday sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder telling him that “I was troubled by the President’s recent suggestion that the Administration has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy” to address the emerging threat. In the letter, Franken urged the Justice Department to “focus its resources and efforts in places where terrorism recruitment efforts may be happening at higher rates, such as Minnesota” and work to prevent Americans from traveling abroad to join forces with terrorist groups in Syria.
‘A big tent’
McFadden, who has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Johnson on the campaign trail, said Johnson’s record of voting with Republicans 93 percent of the time does not undermine his quest for independent voters.
“From the beginning I’ve said this is a big-tent campaign,” McFadden said. “I want Republicans, I want independents, I want Reagan Democrats,” he said. “I believe when we talk about things like energy, education and effective government, those are things that the vast majority of Minnesotans agree on.”
Pearson said McFadden’s efforts show that building a diverse Republican coalition is different from running as a moderate, where success is rare.
“When you think of key Tea Party leaders in the U.S. Senate, Johnson is certainly not the first that comes to mind. He’s squarely a partisan Republican, but not in the bomb-throwing Ted Cruz or Rand Paul style,” she said, referring to the senators from Texas and Kentucky respectively.
Similarly, support from IP leaders could serve a two-fold purpose for McFadden. It could help neutralize an IP candidate who has alienated his own party’s leaders and who could draw votes from a Republican.
It also provides a stamp of approval of sorts from two of the state’s three major parties.
Steve Carlson, the IP candidate, stunned his party by snatching the primary from the IP’s endorsed candidate, Kevin Terrell. Carlson is a self-described Tea Party candidate who, in a three-way race, would be more likely to draw votes from the Republican than the Democratic candidate.
The party has been distancing itself from Carlson since his primary win and appears to have stripped his name and likeness from its website.
On Monday, Jack Uldrich, a former Minnesota IP chairman, announced he would support McFadden and not Carlson.
“As a long-time political independent, I’m endorsing Mike McFadden because he has the integrity to reach across party lines and do what is right for Minnesotans and future generations,” Uldrich said.
David Dillon, who ran as the IP candidate for the Third Congressional District in 2008 but lost to Republican Erik Paulsen, said he too would support McFadden, but not because he opposed Carlson.
“Not for me, it really has got zero to do with it,” Dillon said. No matter who came through the Independence Party primary, he said, “ I still would have endorsed McFadden because he’s that good.”
Dillon said he is untroubled that McFadden stood next to Johnson one day after announcing his IP support.
“I’m interested in better policy out of the Senate instead of dogmatic, which is what we’ve got,” Dillon said. He said McFadden was “the better policy guy” but added that “if he’s out there with the dogmatic guy because he needs the votes, he needs the money — that’s politics.”