MINNEAPOLIS - Nearly a decade after dying in a plane crash, Sen. Paul Wellstone is still revered by many Minnesota Democrats. But it's a Republican U.S. Senate candidate mining the late senator's underdog appeal for a campaign boost.
Kurt Bills' campaign released an online ad Monday that mimics nearly shot for shot the landmark 1990 campaign ad entitled "Fast Paced Paul." That offbeat ad introduced Wellstone, then a virtually unknown college professor, to Minnesota voters.
Initially seen as a sure loser, Wellstone upset incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz that year. Bills — a high school economics teacher also largely unknown to state voters — is encouraging a comparison as he challenges the popular and well-funded Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar.
The version from Bills, "Quick Kurt," can only be viewed online. Bills' campaign manager, Mike Osskopp, said the financially challenged campaign hopes to raise enough to put it on TV in September. In the meantime, attempts to draw a populist comparison between the deeply conservative Bills and the highly liberal Wellstone are an investment in attracting media and online attention.
"About this time in 1990, it was inevitable that Boschwitz was going to be re-elected," Osskopp said. "We're fighting that same notion of inevitability."
Wellstone's ad introduced his family, touched on farm and environmental policy, endorsed national health care and mentioned his teaching career and support for the labor movement — all in 30 seconds. He was speaking fast, Wellstone had said, because his opponent had so much more to spend on TV advertising.
"We were trying to frame the race as Paul going up against this guy who would try to win by buying up a bunch of airtime," said Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis political advertising consultant who created the piece. "To a large degree, it worked."
Bills' ad copies the same basic format of the Wellstone ad. While Wellstone never mentioned his opponent by name, Bills veers into criticizing Klobuchar over her votes for 2008 bank bailout and the 2009 economic stimulus package.
"I don't think Paul Wellstone would have voted for" either of those, Bills says in the ad. Hillsman said he saw that message as the real point of the ad: "He's trying to drive a wedge between people who voted for Wellstone and people who would vote for Klobuchar."
Klobuchar's campaign spokesman declined to comment. Hillsman said the original ad, which went on to win national awards, is copyrighted, but that it would be too much hassle to invoke it.
Wellstone's son, Dave Wellstone, said in a statement Monday that the Bills ad "is completely disrespectful of my dad's memory."
"Kurt Bills' economic policies are the polar opposite of what my dad stood for. Amy Klobuchar has fought for middle-class families and does things the way my dad did them — with optimism, warmth, and an unending respect for the people of Minnesota," Dave Wellstone's statement said.
Osskopp said he's been researching the 1990 race as the Bills campaign looks for openings against Klobuchar's advantages. There are parallels: By mid-September 1990, Wellstone had raised less than $200,000, while Boschwitz had taken in nearly $4.8 million. A Star Tribune poll released on September 25, 1990, had Boschwitz leading Wellstone 55 percent to 40 percent.
Policy-wise, Wellstone and Bills have little in common. Bills is a libertarian calling for vast, severe cuts to federal spending and government programs, while Wellstone was fiercely pro-government and had one of the Senate's most liberal voting records over his two terms.
Still, the Bills campaign has played up the comparison, right down to their choices of transportation. Wellstone was well-known for traveling the state in a green school bus that became a symbol for his grassroots appeal. Bills, too, is traveling by bus — his is painted blue.
Bills ad "Quick Kurt": http://bit.ly/Muo85K
Original Wellstone ad "Fast Paced Paul": http://bit.ly/28avbm