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“There is a big debate going on within the Republican Party, and frankly, it’s probably a more important debate than the one going on between the Republicans and the Democrats,” said Marianne Stebbins, a Ron Paul supporter who led Minnesota’s libertarian-dominated delegation to last year’s Republican National Convention.
Stebbins said she hopes to see the party’s activists rally around an endorsed candidate, not necessarily a Rove-backed mainstream candidate. “Most people wish the Karl Roves of the party were gone,” she said.
Tea Partiers also have pushed back against Rove’s project.
“You don’t want a rigid ideologue who can’t get anything done, but you also don’t want a chameleon who’s going to change his spots all the time,” said Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express, which supported Bills, as well as Angle and O’Donnell.
Russo, who has put Minnesota’s Senate race “on our radar,” said it seems as if Rove and his allies “want to go to war with the grass roots.”
If there’s a grass-roots consensus in Minnesota, one recent poll shows that it could favor Bachmann, a Tea Party stalwart. A Public Policy Polling survey in January showed her as the clear favorite among Republican primary voters, with 45 percent support, far ahead of mainstream picks such as Kline and Paulsen.
The same poll found Franken peaking above 52 percent voter approval, a much higher rating than he had during his 2009 recount victory over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, who has sworn off a rematch. Franken, with a freshman’s focus on consumer rights and helping constituents, has given ideological foes little to work with.
That, along with Franken’s star-quality fundraising ability, could also dampen Republican enthusiasm, according to University of Minnesota political analyst Eric Ostermeier: “Some credit has to be given to Al Franken for gaining a positive image, … which he did not have prior to his becoming a candidate, when he was seen as much more of a partisan and a flamethrower.”
Some analysts believe Bachmann could walk away with the GOP nomination, setting up a titanic Bachmann-Franken duel.
But hardly anyone sees her as a strong general-election contender. Politically sapped after her 2012 presidential bid, Bachmann has said nothing about a potential Senate run.
Kline and Paulsen also have demurred. With their stars rising in Congress, few party insiders consider either of them likely to risk a Senate run next year.
If there’s a GOP candidate who can break the intraparty impasse, some are now looking to the business community, possibly an entirely new face in politics.
“Voters are frustrated with politicians and with Washington,” Shortridge said. “They’re not looking for the same old political faces. ... They’re looking for people outside of the traditional political sphere.”
Kevin Diaz • firstname.lastname@example.org