His message about less government, more freedom is finding traction.
On a cold and drizzly Saturday afternoon, Tom Emmer was edging his way through the crowd at a Tea Party rally in Fergus Falls.
One by one, he chatted with people anxious about the reach of the federal government, the tough business climate and undocumented immigrants. He didn't merely want to meet each of them, he wanted to connect, offering an easy smile and powerful grip. By the time he took the stage, the lawyer with two decades of trial experience had already worked almost every corner of the rain-soaked crowd with his message of less government and more freedom.
"I've think I've had a vision into Tom's heart," said David Lindberg, co-founder of Republican Bulldogs, which organized the rally. "I think he's a good person, and that he's willing to work with or at least listen to people."
In just a year, the little-known Republican legislator from Delano has polished his everyman, locker-room charisma into a formidable campaign for governor. It's the first statewide race for a rising conservative who carries a Sarah Palin endorsement and pocketful of proposals to push back against the hand of the federal government.
Emmer paints his message with a broad brush and few details; a confection to those who feel government has become too burdensome and expensive for some and overly accommodating to others.
But Emmer's bravado also makes him a handy target for Democrats and has moderate Republicans concerned that his defiantly conservative views could hand Democrats their first gubernatorial victory in more than 20 years.
Emmer and his wife, Jacquie -- a regular, smiling presence on the campaign trail -- have staked their personal and financial fortunes on the race. Emmer, who has seven children, said the demands of the campaign have left him with little time in the last year to tend his law practice.
Unlike several of his rivals in other parties, he has no personal wealth from which to draw.
"There's nobody who has more invested in this race than I do," Emmer said at his campaign office in Minnetonka. "You start in the dark. I do this by the Braille method. I do it with heart, and I hope my head is connected when whatever it is comes out of my mouth."
Like many successful politicians, Emmer has become a vessel for a complex recipe of hopes, fears and anger, but they emanate from a segment of society whose reach and power remain untested in this state.
Emmer speaks to what he says is a faint whisper blowing through the trees from the Iron Range to the valleys of Redwood Falls.
Although a Republican has governed the state for eight years, Emmer says the state's freedoms have withered.
"We are losing our liberty, we are losing our freedom, and I don't think people want to say it quite that way, but they feel it," Emmer said. "So when you talk to them, if you're addressing that, they wake up and go, 'You are right,' and they want to hear more."
With the state facing a potential deficit of $6 billion, Emmer says he will cut taxes and spending, along with regulation.
The moves, he says, will spur business growth and suppress spending, particularly in social services.
Emmer says he won't release particulars until October, but in the meantime says he would give local school boards more control over classrooms and lessons, and would reduce or eliminate the role of state and federal government where possible.
"Everybody else, to a person, says we need to raise taxes to support the services," Emmer said. "Why aren't we looking at the delivery system?"
He also wants to overhaul immigration laws, to ensure Minnesota does not become a destination for illegal immigrants in search of social services.
He has evoked scorn and adoration in praising a controversial Arizona immigration law that allow local law enforcement to check immigration status.
Polls spur optimism
There are reasons for Emmer to be optimistic about his message. Most early polls show him leading or tied with his self-funded or well-connected DFL foes, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Low turnout, which is expected in a non-presidential election year, historically has boded well for Republicans.
Many Republican leaders expect Emmer to ride high on what they say is a conservative swell sweeping the country. That could give him a powerful mandate to enact changes unprecedented in the state's recent history.
"Tom will be able to do some things [Gov.] Tim Pawlenty wasn't able to do because the environment wasn't right," said Tony Sutton, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
Emmer, who faces no serious primary challenge, has aired no television ads. He has no infrastructure of staffers across the state.
His campaign declines to release fundraising or even staffing numbers, citing competitive reasons. Instead, Emmer has relied primarily on parades, rallies, community events and a 20-stop bus tour that he says is allowing him to "listen" to Minnesotans before formulating his vision.
"I now feel like everything I have done up until this point has prepared me to do this," Emmer said.
Perils of the trail
From the time he landed at the Legislature, Emmer has been a full-sized personality, one moment making an impassioned plea for chemical castration for sex offenders, the next regaling friends in Delano about nearly getting soiled by a horse in a parade.
That free-swinging nature comes with perils, too.
In what often are the sleepy, introductory months of early summer, Emmer has occasionally turned feisty with those who press him for budget details. "I am not running to be the accountant," he said at a recent Delano Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Some Republicans worry that Emmer has never run for anything outside his district and that his anti-government and anti-illegal immigrant beliefs could tie him to sentiments many Minnesotans find distasteful.
In Fergus Falls, for instance, Emmer gave his speech 20 feet from a man holding a sign: "MN Zoo has a African lion. DC zoo has a lyin' African."
Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, a moderate Republican, said Emmer is so divisive that he may not be able to broaden his base enough to win.
Durenberger, who supports Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, said he used to be fan of Emmer's political musings, but is put off by what he says is a new, stronger edge. "It doesn't feel inclusive," Durenberger said. "You can't reach right of center from this far out."
But Emmer says that once Minnesotans get to know him and his brood, "They will see we are more like the average Minnesota family than anybody else who's out there and I think people will identify."
The hockey connection
To help foster that sense of kinship, Emmer frequently draws on his hockey past.
He grew up playing hockey in Edina and went on to play for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He returned to Minnesota to attend William Mitchell College of Law but still swings a mean stick and coaches the sport.
On the campaign trail he talks of how coaching hockey taught him to motivate.
"You have to know what it's like to be the weakest kid and what it's like to be the strongest kid at some time in your life," he said "And you need to understand what they are feeling to try to motivate everybody and get them to do things that they never would have done otherwise."
Emmer has turned his love of the sport into a memorable campaign gimmick.
At every parade this summer, he dons in-line skates, sometimes for three sweaty events a day. Part of the fascination for paradegoers, he knows, lies in watching to see whether he lands on his posterior.
"It's true," he said with a laugh. "They're all waiting for me to go down. I'll hit those rubber things in the road and they go, 'wooo.'"
Emmer also draws on people skills built over years in the courtroom, winning over jurors.
"The one thing they all have in common when the trial starts? They don't trust the lawyers," Emmer said. "It's a lot the same when you do these political things. Your job as a lawyer is to gain credibility, create an emotional connection. To perform."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288