Republican political newcomer Mike McFadden handily clinched a deciding triumph over insurgent challenger state Rep. Jim Abeler in Tuesday’s primary election, winning the chance for a costly and hard-fought battle against Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
The investment banker from Sunfish Lake has never run for office before and faces the formidable challenge of raising millions more dollars in a race against a proven fundraising powerhouse. The faceoff between McFadden and Franken is already among the most watched races in the nation as Republicans try to wrest control of the U.S. Senate.
At his victory party at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul, McFadden addressed several dozen supporters amid occasional jeers aimed at Franken. He called Abeler, who was at home in Anoka County, a “class act.” He promised to work through the bipartisan gridlock in Washington.
“I know how to get us back onto the path of growth and prosperity … it starts with new leadership in Washington,” he told the crowd. “Senator Franken is a servant. He served this state for the last six years. I thank him for that, but I put forth to you tonight that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
These tepid early jabs match a “Minnesota nice” strategy that McFadden has been rolling out all campaign, portraying himself as a likable fresh face in the race. The national Republican establishment — McFadden has garnered campaign contributions from 32 sitting U.S. senators — is betting this more moderate tone is pitch-perfect to knock off Franken, who eked out his first win by 312 votes after a protracted multimillion-dollar recount.
Since winning the party’s backing at the May Republican convention in Rochester, McFadden basically ignored his primary challenger and has doggedly worked to haul in impressive money, amassing nearly $2 million cash on hand at the end of a July reporting period. Though he had $100 for every $1 that Abeler had, Franken was still significantly in the lead with $4.3 million in the bank.
Though Abeler had a loyal following in some quarters and garnered endorsements from a former GOP Minnesota governor and U.S. senator, the libertarian-leaning chiropractor and four-term Anoka state representative struggled with fundraising, name recognition and finding a reliable way to get his message out.
“Our common goal is the good of our state and country,” Abeler said in a statement late Tuesday. “It is important that our party is united in November, if we are to change for the better. By God’s grace, I look forward to being part of that process.”
Since the Republican convention, McFadden has embarked on an 87-county tour around the state, stopping at fairs, parades and coffee shops, mostly promoting a message of a crippled Washington — a “throw the bums out” message that leaned hard on the low approval ratings of Congress and President Obama.
McFadden says Washington is composed of partisans who do not seek out solutions the way he would.
“I hear consistently that we’re on the wrong path and there’s such an extreme level of partisanship in Washington, they’re very, very concerned about it,” McFadden said, in an earlier interview. “They don’t think Washington is getting things done.”
Democrats were already sharpening their attacks on McFadden minutes after he declared victory. They are painting the father of six as a detached Mitt Romney-type Republican who bounces from one heavily orchestrated event to another, echoing a national GOP message that they say has little resonance in Minnesota.
“If elected to the U.S. Senate, McFadden would put special interests — including his billionaire supporters the Koch brothers — ahead of working families,” said Carrie Lucking, executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a group aimed at helping Democrats win in November.
Given that he has never run for any office before, McFadden has had a crash course in federal policy, the finesse of politicking, and giving speeches, in rooms big and small.
He took a leave of absence from his investment banking job last year and has employed various advisers — including former Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman — to help with crafting a message and introducing him to Minnesota voters.
His first television commercials portray him as an affable family guy, taking below-the-gut punches from children on a football field and bantering with his adult son about how frugal he was as a father.
McFadden spent the primary day glad-handing with voters and casting his own vote, along with his family, at an Episcopal church in his hometown. His Tuesday night party at O’Gara’s gained excitement and several dozen people as polls closed. Abeler’s campaign did not put on a party. Instead, he stayed home and invited supporters over. Diane Dunnigan, 71, of St. Paul, a retired at-home child care provider, arrived early to McFadden’s campaign party hoping to meet the candidate and his family.
A lifelong Republican, Dunnigan said she had never been involved in politics but was inspired by McFadden’s ad where he was punched by a child playing football.
The ad sparked some lighthearted controversy that was dubbed “groin-gate” on social media.
“I was so impressed with how sweet he is,” Dunnigan said. “That ad did it. He’s great.”
Jane Neuenfeldt, 61, said she liked McFadden for his humorous ads and because he opposes abortion.
“He’ll fight for conservative values,” she said.
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.