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'43 seconds:' McFadden's down-to-the-second plan for GOP convention

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Updated: June 2, 2014 - 9:37 PM

43 seconds. 20 minutes. 50,000 calls.

Key numbers for the surprisingly successful quest for convention endorsement by Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden.

McFadden, a politically untested politician and former Lazard Middle Market executive, began Friday's state convention as an underdog to win the party's nod. Sure, he had amassed significant campaign cash but he had little history with party politics and had vowed to run against whomever the party endorsed in a primary.

But, quietly, the McFadden team decided months ago that it would fight hard for the endorsement and build a sophisticated organization to make it happen.

"The organization is something you don’t talk about until it’s over," Brad Herold, McFadden's campaign manager, said Monday morning as his boss took off on a small plane to barnstorm the state with the party's other picks.

McFadden spent much of the first months of his campaign raising money.

“People think raising money is easy, it's not easy,” McFadden said Monday.

But he did it, tapping in to Republican DC power players, business contacts and others. So far he has raised about $2.85 million to vie against Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, one of the best fundraisers in the Senate.

So, after coming in distant but respectable second place in two Republican straw polls, the team had added a convention strategy to their goals.

“We are going to pursue the endorsement but we are not going to do anything that may potentially jeopardize our general election strategy,” Herold said they decided. “Every decision we made was viewed through that prism.”

The decision was made but the campaign realized it had no expertise in vying for party endorsement. The Minnesota way of doing things at conventions is nearly unique to the state. Endorsement takes knowledge, organization and at least a bit of luck.

“I have not done a political convention before, Mike has not done a political convention before, Tom (Erickson,) has not done a political convention before so we needed someone who had done it,” Herold said. So they studied Minnesota’s recent history and opted to look at Republican gubernatorial convention winner Tom Emmer’s team.

Picking up key staffers and volunteers from that 2010 convention win – including now McFadden political director Kevin Poindexter, and power volunteers Jen Niska and Becky Alery – they set out get that expertise.

"They had incorporated a lot of the 2010 plan," said Emmer's 2010 convention campaign manager David FitzSimmons. FitzSimmons, a member of the state House from Albertville, offered his experience to the campaign and became heavily involved the week before the convention.

Adding targeting director Sam Winter, who managed Cam Winton's ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Minneapolis mayor last year, they directed phone calls to potential delegates.

In recent months, the campaign made more than 50,000 phone calls to the universe of under 7,000 Republican activists who could have ended up in the convention hall. While those calls helped to woo delegates -- and make them realize McFadden was serious about working for their votes -- they also aided in the tricky task of figuring out the delegates plans.

"We had IDed almost 70 percent of the delegates going into the convention. We knew who they were going to vote for on their first ballot," Herold said.

It was a tough job, made more difficult because at least half the people slated to attend had focused more on the governor’s race endorsement, which was planned for Saturday, than the one for Senate, planned for Friday.

"There were a lot of undecided and soft support and quite frankly unknown support," said Niska.

Even while people were walking in to register on Friday morning, the McFadden campaign was double-checking the names. The volunteer McFadden Calvary, 70 volunteers strong, helped with that – and everything else.

Then late in the afternoon on Friday, came the chance for Senate candidates to address the crowd. With so much soft support and so many people unsure of their votes, those became a crucial decision point for delegates.

St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, who had long run a low-key campaign for Senate, and Phillip C. Parrish, a virtual unknown who just barely managed to gather the four dozen signatures needed to be nominated, wowed the crowd.

“We need to turn Franken’s blue counties to Republican red,” said Dahlberg, who, unlike McFadden, pledged to abide by their endorsement.

“We can defend our gun rights because, come on, man, come and take it from me,” Naval Reserve officer Parrish said.

The McFadden campaign had not quite expected the impact they had.

On the first ballot, Dahlberg won 25 percent of the vote and Parrish drew 16 percent. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, who walked into the convention as an expected favorite, netted 22 percent and McFadden got 23 percent. Rep. Jim Abeler had 7 percent.

“It was a big surprise but it was a welcome surprise,” Herold said.

After that first ballot, the campaign worked its plan as Abeler, Ortman and Parrish slowly dropped out of contention. Dahlberg rose in delegate support but so did McFadden.

McFadden had organization on his side.

It had pre-printed a hoard of fliers to distribute to delegates at key moments but also prepared to print fliers on the fly. They figured, with all their printers going, they could print out the needed 2,200 fliers in 20 minutes, said Tom Erickson, McFadden spokesman. Once printed, they could get them to the floor in 43 seconds – when delivered at a sprint.

That speed was key. Once Abeler dropped out, the lawmakers who had backed their long-time colleague were up from grabs. McFadden, who already had some legislative support, pounced.

Picking up more legislators’ support, the campaign was able to quickly distribute a signed letter from the new lawmakers and the existing ones, endorsing McFadden.

Often delegates will pay heed to lawmakers’ endorsements. The local legislators are thought leaders and able to act as powerful surrogates to the activists, who are their friends and neighbors, said FitzSimmons, a veteran of both endorsing conventions and the Legislature.

After nearly nine hours of voting, with just Dahlberg and McFadden left in the running, the delegates decided to retire for the night. Dahlberg had 54 percent of the vote and McFadden had 44 percent.

“It wasn’t until we recessed on Friday night that we started to talk about: how do we pick up his votes?” Herold said of Dahlberg’s 54 percent.

With the political team down for the night – they had had no sleep Thursday night – Erickson, Herold and others hunkered down for a no-sleep session of their own.

No coffee to be found, Erickson, a self-confessed caffeine addict, fueled with soda.

“I was going through horrible withdrawal,” Erickson said.

The next day, the delegate ranks were refilled with about 700 people who had not come for Friday night’s fun. They hadn’t seen Dahlberg’s presentation and were fresh to the scene. They were greeted by McFadden himself, who shook the hand of every arriving delegate, a McFadden sticker and a McFadden lit piece.

Then came another welcome surprise. Niska, a 6th District activist, had secured a statement from retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann.

“I think we can all agree that Sen. Franken must go. The question is, who had the conservative principles, resources, and organization to accomplish that goal?” Bachmann said in the statement. “It is my belief that Mike McFadden is the candidate that can best bring the fight to Sen. Franken.”

Printed in 20 minutes, rushed to the floor in 43 seconds, the statement was spread throughout the convention hall.

So powerful were the words from Bachmann, long a GOP icon, that a delegate took to a mic to doubt its veracity.

Niska stood up in front of the thousands to declare that she personally had talked to the representative's office. The statement, delivered around the 8th ballot, was real.

On the 9th ballot, McFadden surged to 53 percent.

After the 10th ballot, he was declared the victor.

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