GOP battle over potential Franken challenger proves unpredictable

Chris Dahlberg led the field for the Senate race endorsement, but Mike McFadden still is in the fight, which will resume at 9 a.m. Saturday.

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Republicans vying for U.S. Senate endorsement scrambled Friday and into Saturday to line up support from divided party activists, in an hours-long contest that started unpredictably and narrowed to just two candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg emerged as a dark horse front-runner Friday night, forcing out every other candidate but investment banker Mike McFadden, who has already vowed to fight on to a primary. Sen. Julianne Ortman withdrew shortly before midnight Friday.

Results of the seventh ballot early Saturday had Dahlberg with 54 percent vs. 44.1 percent for McFadden. Before an eighth could be held, the convention voted to recess until 9 a.m.

After losing badly in the 2012 Senate race, many of the delegates at Friday’s convention were in a pragmatic frame of mind.

Even though he wore a red, white and blue Ortman sticker on his lapel, Rochester delegate Fred Nobrega said he would support whoever was capable of the primary goal: Unseating U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

“It doesn’t really make much difference ultimately,” Nobrega said. “The important thing is we want Franken out.”

To that end, Dahlberg stressed his credentials as a Republican who had won office in the DFL stronghold of St. Louis County.

“We need to turn Franken’s blue counties to Republican red,” Dahlberg told delegates. “You can be true to your conservative values and you can still have a broad approach to appeal to people.” An attorney in Duluth who just finished serving 25 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, Dahlberg said he represents a district with “hardworking, blue-collar Democratic roots,” filled with people who are “compassionate for the truly needy but they’re not for foolish spending.”

McFadden, who early on was chastised by some for focusing more on his primary strategy, appeared to be wooing delegates heavily Friday. He dazzled convention-goers with an elaborate balloon drop and live fireworks inside Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center on Friday, and came in ahead of Ortman in early rounds but remained slightly behind Dahlberg.

“I’m here today because Washington is broken,” McFadden said in his speech to delegates. “Our freedoms have gotten smaller … and the American dream has grown further out of reach for more Americans.” He stressed his superior fundraising with literature that noted he had amassed more donations than the rest of the GOP Senate field combined.

Franken, whom Democrats will endorse for a second term Saturday in Duluth, took office in 2009 after beating former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes in a race that led to a recount and legal challenge.

On Friday, Coleman took the stage to make a special appeal to delegates.

“In 2014, whoever our candidate is, I ask that you stand with me and make sure there is no recount and there is no do-over,” said Coleman, who is supporting McFadden.

About 2,000 delegates throughout the state will decide upon the endorsement, with 60 percent required to secure it.

Remaining divided

But no matter who wins endorsement, Republicans may remain divided until the Aug. 12 primary.

Both McFadden and state Rep. Jim Abeler have said they will run in the primary regardless of who’s endorsed.

Some delegates were openly resentful of those candidates not honoring the endorsement. During McFadden’s speech to delegates, a few could be heard hooting loudly: “Abide by the endorsement!”

  • Republicans make their picks

    Republican party delegates gathered in Rochester Friday to begin endorsing their 2014 candidates.

    Secretary of State: Former state Rep. Dan Severson

    Attorney General: Sen. Scott Newman, of Hutchinson

    State Auditor: Randy Gilbert, a compliance auditor and former Long Lake mayor

    U.S. Senate: Delegates were still balloting as this edition went to press. Contenders: Businessman Mike McFadden, state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, along with Monte Moreno and Philip Parrish.

    What’s next: GOP delegates are expected to endorse a gubernatorial candidate on Saturday. DFLers will meet Saturday in Duluth to endorse their slate, including Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

    Go to: Hot Dish Politics for the latest, at http://www.startribune.com/politics/blogs/hot_dish_politics.html and sign up for our daily newsletter, http://www.startribune.com/membercenter?

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