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Continued: GOP race pits insider vs. outsider

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 28, 2010 - 11:09 PM

Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer epitomize the dueling forces raging within the Republican Party.

These two powerful figures, who have battled over legislative leadership positions, will collide Friday in the hand-to-hand political combat of the Republican state convention in Minneapolis.

Seifert has studiously built his reputation as a fiscal and social conservative bill by bill, year by year, since he was first elected to the House in 1996. He rose to House minority leader, disciplined his caucus to uphold Republican gubernatorial vetoes and parlayed his nearly unblemished record into what at first appeared an unstoppable bid for the party's gubernatorial endorsement.

Enter Tom Emmer, a fiery trial attorney from Delano who stormed into the House in 2004. A chest-thumping, constitutional conservative, Emmer has become a Tea Party favorite, whose impassioned, freedom-loving message has wrestled many of the state's biggest Republicans into his camp.

Now, on the eve of the Republican Party's endorsing convention, the two will duke it out for the gubernatorial endorsement and control of the party.

The stakes could not be higher. Republicans have had a two-term winning streak under departing Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and many Republican operatives believe a wave of conservative activism across the country could help usher another of their candidates into the governor's mansion.

"I think this tsunami will be much more powerful than anybody thinks," said former state party chairman Ron Eibensteiner.

In contrast to the recent DFL endorsement battle, which was intense but relatively civil, the Emmer-Seifert duel has turned nasty as the race has tightened.

The campaigns have been hammering at each other over no-tax pledges and Emmer's decades-old drunken driving charges.

Seifert's campaign released a letter from a delegate bashing Emmer for trying to hide the drunken driving charges and then offering legislation that eases DWI laws. This week, Seifert's campaign leaked unflattering information about Emmer's 11th-hour decision to chose his running mate, Annette Meeks.

Other times, both sides have questioned each other's conservative credentials and records.

Emmer's team frames him as the straight-talking outsider, taking jabs at Seifert for the kind of compromises that make for a successful legislator but can be hard to explain to true believers.

"Now is the time we elect a statesman over a politician," Emmer said at a recent campaign event. "It's also about a new style of leadership. It's time for people outside of government to start to lead government."

Seifert said the question is not one of ideological purity, but of delivery and personal style.

Seifert, who has been called Pawlenty 2.0, has a deserved reputation for quick wit. He revels in devising the perfect Republican sound bite, but also is proud of his legislative successes in reaching out to Independents and conservative Democrats. Six-foot-4, lean and bald, with drooping eyes and an air of discipline that comes from years of hard-fought legislative dealmaking, Seifert has surprised many with the news that he's only 38.

Some Republicans "just say they want to burn the Capitol to the ground," said Seifert, a university admissions counselor from Marshall. "Tom fits the shtick better. I just don't believe most Minnesotans feel that way." Seifert said that as governor he would do what he has done as a legislator: "I will continue to fight for Minnesotans to reduce taxes, cut spending, and rein in government at all levels."

Emmer spends much of his time talking about a return to a more strictly constitutional government and greater economic freedom. At times light on details, Emmer excels at the kind of full-throated, sometimes angry speeches that evangelize and ignite the faithful. And while Emmer portrays himself as an outsider, he has held elective office for 16 years, including 10 on city councils.

Once a gifted hockey player, Emmer is tall and thick-necked, with a pudgy face, salt-and-pepper hair and a firm handshake. At 49, he is quick to laugh, but some legislative colleagues note that he has an explosive temper when he doesn't get his way.

Emmer is the type who says "I won't compromise on my principles, for anybody," Dick Glasgow said at a recent Tea Party rally. Glasgow, who supported Jesse Ventura and sports a big tattoo of the wrestler-turned-governor, views that as a plus.

"I am not looking for somebody owned by a party," said Glasgow, 65. "Emmer is like Ventura. Ask him a question, he'll tell you the answer, whether you are going to like the answer or not. That brought me right into his camp."

Emmer's legislative record is marked by proposals that delight conservatives. This year, he sponsored a constitutional amendment on term limits and a bill that would allow Minnesota to opt out of federal mandates, which appealed to the growing nullification movement among conservatives.

Seifert's accomplishments are less sexy, but have been more successful. Over the years he has changed rules to aid small businesses, worked to downsize state government and boosted funding for veterans.

"Has Emmer passed any bills to cut government?" Seifert asked. "I have. I've done it when he's talked about it."

Nevertheless, Emmer's all-or-nothing message and charisma have caught on with some. A November poll showed Emmer with a dismal 1 percent to Seifert's 11 percent. Now, many insiders place the two in a dead heat.

Taking sides

Big-name Republicans have started taking sides.

Backing Seifert: former Gov. Al Quie, Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson and more than 50 current and former legislators.

In Emmer's corner: Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and Brian Sullivan, who lost the gubernatorial endorsement to Pawlenty in 2002.

Emmer's stunning rise hasn't been without some missteps.

His crew nearly tripped a political land mine this week when a powerful group that opposes abortion found out that former legislator Linda Runbeck was on his short list for lieutenant governor.

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life opposed Runbeck in part because 16 years ago she was among a few Republican legislators who took a rare vote against the group, dooming abortion legislation it supported.

At the last minute, Emmer chose Meeks, a conservative and reliable abortion opponent.

"We love her," said Scott Fischbach, the group's executive director.

The group also likes Seifert and his running mate, Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah. "Pro-lifers can be very happy with supporting either of them," Fischbach said.

As Emmer's campaign rides a wave of momentum to the convention showdown, Seifert's legislative acumen could pay dividends in this arena. Some of his supporters are banking that a few teetering delegates will do a convention floor gut-check and realize they aren't willing to roll the dice with Emmer.

"This will really come down to who's got the better ground game," said Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist who backs Seifert. "Having been minority leader, it gave him the platform to reach out to all parts of the state. It is a good proving ground."

In last weekend's DFL endorsing contest, a similar match of personal appeal versus careful organization resulted in House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher beating the flashier Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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