As House Speaker Kurt Daudt hobnobbed with influential Republicans last week at the GOP national convention in Cleveland, a pesky competitor was hustling for votes back home, trying to upend the first-term speaker.
But it is not what you might think: The challenger is from Daudt’s own party.
Alan Duff, a retired major from the U.S. Army Reserve and small-business man, is taking on Daudt in the GOP primary Aug. 9, telling voters that the speaker has betrayed the trust of the district’s conservative Republicans.
Duff has won the endorsement of the mayor of one of the district’s largest cities and has been knocking on doors for two months, hoping that in a low turnout primary he can summon enough disenchanted voters for what would be a shocking upset of a man many Republicans eye as a potential governor or congressman.
Daudt’s GOP primary challenge, which the speaker says is being engineered by foes from outside the district, illustrates the complex demands placed on Republican officeholders these days, especially in a divided government.
On the one hand, acceding to the demands of party activists can be costly: Former GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove pushed through constitutional amendments in 2012 banning same-sex marriage and requiring tougher voter ID laws that appealed to more conservative donors and activists, but he lost his leadership post after the next election when voters rejected the constitutional provisions and handed DFLers control of the House.
On the other hand, conservative-leaning voters have grown impatient with the conventions of governing, which likely cost the former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner his job when he made deals with President Obama to keep the machinery of the federal government moving, to the dismay of the most strident members of his caucus.
Angry GOP voters say they want change immediately and do not cotton to compromise, even on such basic issues as deciding on a state budget with the governor and Senate, both currently in DFL hands.
At the state Republican convention this spring, activists passed out fliers saying Daudt had betrayed conservatives by offering to raise license tab fees $100 million as a way to compromise with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on new transportation spending.
“I understand they’re frustrated. And I’m frustrated too. But in divided government you don’t get everything you want,” Daudt said at a Zimmerman Dunn Bros. Coffee in his district.
“My advice to them would be: Join us. Let’s work on winning the Senate this year. And let’s work on winning the governor’s office in two years,” said Daudt, who will be at the top of any list of viable Republican candidates for governor in 2018 if he holds control of the House in November.
During Daudt’s rapid rise — he was elected in 2010 and speaker just four years later — he has shown a natural instinct for media, fundraising and politics.
For Duff and his backers, however, Daudt is just another Republican gone soft in St. Paul.
“The voice I’ve heard from everybody on the streets is, What happened to conservative leadership?” said Duff, who served on the Isanti City Council and then the Isanti County Commission. (He and Daudt overlapped for two years on the County Board before Daudt won his House seat.)
Duff cites the Daudt proposal to raise car tab fees as a prime example.
“I don’t understand a Republican asking for that increase,” he said.
Daudt replied that his 18-month campaign against Dayton’s gas tax increase was ultimately successful. He said the car tab proposal was a tactical ploy to show Minnesotans that Dayton wasn’t serious about making a deal on transportation, a Daudt priority since so many rural residents are driving on crumbling roads.
Duff also points to what he views as unacceptable spending increases and the House GOP’s proposal — currently in limbo as Daudt negotiates with Dayton — to borrow $1 billion to spend on infrastructure like roads, bridges and water systems.
“We have a large surplus. During that time we have a Republican asking for bonding, for more debt, for roads. That’s not the way I manage my family household,” Duff said.
Daudt said that the two-year general fund budget passed in 2015 included one of the lowest increases in the past 50 years, an assessment backed by the state budget office. And, Daudt said, he has directed spending toward more rural districts like his, including money for nursing homes, schools and transportation.
The speaker said his friendly, moderate demeanor can be misunderstood: He has one of the most conservative voting records in the House.
Daudt said he is taking nothing for granted and managed to throw a barb at his former County Board colleague, attacking Duff’s past support for commuter rail. Daudt has been a fierce opponent to the Southwest Light Rail Transit extension from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
In the end, Daudt seems confident he will beat Duff. “This is my community. These are my friends. These are my neighbors,” he said. “These people go to church with me. I know these people. I am these people. I feel and think the same way they do, because I come from this community. I don’t have to pretend to be something else,” he said.
But Daudt also said he’s aware of “the bubble,” the phenomenon of lawmakers forgetting that most people carry on with their lives, only vaguely aware of the decisions and battles that consume the Capitol chambers for months each year.
Of the five locals in Dunn Bros., three were not familiar with Daudt, while the other two were DFLers. The guy working at Hair Trigger Gun Shop doesn’t know Daudt’s name, either.
The one-chair barbershop in Zimmerman is a taxidermy showcase featuring a moose, 12-point bucks, northerns, walleyes and a stuffed beaver.
When you want to pay barber William Gulick with a check, you make it out to “Barber,” which is the shop’s simple name. It’s housed in an old bank. Gulick keeps his guns in the giant vault.
“Out of the cities, we’re pretty darned conservative,” Gulick said as he neatly trimmed the hair and mustache of a customer.
Gulick said he knows about Daudt and is generally supportive but couldn’t imagine getting himself worked up enough to vote in the primary.
He grew reflective, leaning on Ecclesiastes: “We all look in the mirror and see one thing. But the world sees another. It’s vanity.”