Lori Sturdevant: In Senate race, a preview of GOP strategy

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 11:02 AM
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Three Republicans will vie for their party’s U.S. Senate endorsement at Friday’s state convention in St. Cloud: Dan Severson, a former state representative; Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran, and Kurt Bills, a current member of the Minnesota House.

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Legislators tend to favor their own kind. That may be how Kurt Bills' two opponents for the Republican U.S. Senate endorsement want delegates at today's state convention to view Wednesday's news that Bills has snagged the backing of House Speaker Kurt Zellers.

Bills, after all, is a high school economics teacher and first-term state rep from Rosemount, part of the big Class of 2010 that Zellers helped recruit, mentor and elect.

But there's more than caucusmate connections at play in Zellers' choice -- or so I gleaned from a visit to the speaker's office earlier this week.

It isn't -- much -- about which Republican the speaker thinks can unseat DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Toppling Klobuchar is a tall order for any of the three little-known Republicans seeking the GOP's Senate nod today -- Bills; former state representative and secretary of state candidate Dan Severson, and Army veteran/political newcomer Pete Hegseth.

Rather, by Zellers' reckoning, dispatching Bills to stump the state for the next five and a half months could make a positive difference in the races that ought to count most for Republicans this year -- the ones to hang on to majorities in the Minnesota Legislature.

"Kurt Bills has the right message for this year," Zellers said of his colleague. "Listen to what he's talking about. He's talking about the work he did here, balancing the budget, reforming government within, education reform, taking the system we have and turning it on its head.

"Bills isn't a guy who goes out and says, 'We have to burn government down.' Bills has adopted what I would call our House mentality: We need to reform government to make it function efficiently."

In short, U.S. Senate candidate Bills would reinforce the message of a positive House record that Zellers wants legislative candidates to hammer all summer and fall.

The message sounds good in simple, summary form: State had a $6.5 billion deficit in January 2011. State books are more than $1 billion in the black now. Taxes weren't raised to make that happen.

The cracks in that façade are only visible on closer inspection. Some of those cracks -- say, the $2.4 billion the state owes its school districts -- can be papered over among audiences susceptible to anti-DFL spin. To wit: DFL fingerprints are also on the school IOU. A DFL governor refused to send half of the state's reserve fund to schools.

A focus on the House Republican record also conveniently draws voters' attention away from less boastworthy branches of the Minnesota GOP family. That messy leadership change in the state Senate? That little problem with the state party's $2 million debt? "Let's say a little more about the good things that happened in the state House," Bills can say.

When he does, it's bound to reflect well on the fellow from North Dakota who wields the gavel in the larger statehouse chamber. That would be the fellow who insisted to Capitol reporters a week ago that he has never thought about running for governor in 2014. If that's so, Zellers is the only politician who sits beneath Cass Gilbert's dome who has not entertained such imaginings.

Should his somnolent ambition suddenly awaken, Zellers might have improved his position for a 2014 GOP endorsement contest by siding with Bills.

The representative from Rosemount is allied with the insurgent, libertarian-oriented Ron Paul wing of the state GOP. Standing with Bills puts Zellers in cozy proximity to that crowd without necessarily landing him in league with it.

What Zellers told me about the Bills' candidacy might one day apply to his own: "Maybe it's the Ron Paul movement and what we did in the last two years, coming together."

Standing with Bills also gives Zellers standing to coach the first-time statewide candidate about how to handle questions about Paul during the fall campaign: Mr. Bills, what about Ron Paul's desire to return the United States to the pre-Great Depression gold standard? Do you agree with Paul's opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How about his support for repealing the federal ban on marijuana?

Coach Zellers, what was that response to pesky questions again? "Let's say a little more about the good things that happened in the Minnesota House."

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Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist.

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