Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt is in the waning weeks of a legislative session where he has very little power but so much on the line.
Lacking the votes to block DFL initiatives, Daudt’s only real strategy is dragging out floor debates and trying to land body blows where he can. He hammers Democratic majorities over what he says is too much spending, over a new multimillion-dollar Senate office building and trouble at MNsure, the state’s fledgling health insurance exchange.
“These are going to be huge issues in the next election,” Daudt said, although others differ.
The stakes are high for the Republican from Crown. He must lead a sometimes unruly GOP House caucus and still be the guiding force for fundraising and candidate recruitment in a defining fight to regain control of the Minnesota House this November. He must somehow protect members in vulnerable districts and plot a way to tip seven more seats his way.
Failure could jettison him back to legislative obscurity. Winning, however, would solidify him as a rising leader in the party and almost certainly make him the next House speaker, a position second in power only to the governor.
Yet at a time of so much promise, Daudt faces internal sniping from fellow GOP legislators and troubling fractures within the party. And then there are lingering questions about his bungled Ford Bronco purchase in Montana that resulted in a gun being drawn.
“It’s tougher than running for governor,” said former House GOP Leader Marty Seifert, who is running for governor. “You’ve got dozens of egos. People are ungrateful. You’ve got Democrats to deal with. You’ve got your caucus to deal with. You’ve got the governor to deal with.”
A former car salesman, Daudt emerged in the wake of a disastrous election two years ago, where voters tossed Republicans from leadership after a damaging showdown with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a three-week state government shutdown.
Daudt was seen as a passionate and likable newcomer who relished the legislative process.
Still in his second term, the 40-year-old Daudt checks many of the boxes crucial for GOP leadership. He is a fiscal conservative with a fierce resistance to new taxes, representing a district that had some of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates during the last recession. He opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage and is long-standing member of the National Rifle Association.
Daudt had to quickly find some kind of edge in a political landscape where Democrats controlled the governor’s office, the House and the Senate. Although many in his party wanted him to dig in, if only as a symbolic show of opposition, Daudt took a different path.
He cut deals with House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, to bring the last legislative session to a timely and tidy end. He has become friends with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Cook Democrat who also comes from a rural district.
“That’s a good sign that he is willing to reach over,” Dayton said of Daudt. “Maybe some of his members will hold that against him. That is not considered to be a virtue, at least I didn’t find when they were in charge. They wanted ‘their way or no way’ confrontation.”
Daudt said that being so firmly in the minority means he has to work with Democrats. He realizes Democrats are essentially unstoppable when they are committed to something, so it is best to eke out small victories where he can.
“There was no manual for this job, about what it was like to be the leader when your party controls none of the three,” Daudt said in an interview. “We don’t have the votes to do anything.”
Building for the future
With little power inside the Capitol, Daudt began a relentless fundraising schedule outside the building. Because Dayton has strong approval ratings and millions of dollars backing his re-election effort, Daudt tells donors that Republicans have a better chance of winning the House than of knocking off the popular governor.
“I can say to them, ‘Maybe we are your best investment,’ ” Daudt said of contributors. “While I think we certainly can win the governor’s office, our best opportunity is the House.”
The Republicans have had big winning streaks in the past. In 2010, House Republicans swept to power, picking up an astonishing 25 seats. Two years later they tanked, losing 11 seats and the majority.
“Seven is not a lot,” Daudt said. “It’s doable.”
In just one year, Daudt brought in more than $1 million for their effort.
“Breaking $1 million was a big statement,” said Ben Golnik, a GOP political operative who worked with Daudt on Seifert’s first gubernatorial campaign. “There are strong expectations.”
At 6-foot-2, Daudt is tall and slender with short blond hair, a chiseled jaw line and a big laugh. During long floor debates, he drinks Mello Yello or Arnold Palmers, a mix of lemonade and sweet tea. Daudt is single and lives on his grandparents’ old farmstead north of the Twin Cities in Isanti County.
While in St. Paul, he bunks with GOP Rep. Kelby Woodard in a house near the Capitol. His Facebook page features a portrait of himself with his beloved black lab, Lucy, on the House floor. A Missouri Synod Lutheran, Daudt helped start a nonprofit organization that builds orphanages in Kenya.
At the Capitol, Daudt has shown a dogged determination not to blow what could be a rare political opportunity for Republicans. With polls showing growing disenchantment with President Obama and Democrats in general, he and other Republicans hope to catch a sizable electoral wave.
“So many politicians in Minnesota are so worried about the next step that they didn’t do good job with the current one,” he said. “And they will never get the opportunity again.”
But Daudt is facing troubles that could unravel his work.
At least two sitting legislators have been denied GOP endorsements, suggesting a weakness in Daudt’s influence among activists. Meanwhile, he recently fended off a surprise endorsement challenge of his own from Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin, who said Daudt never comes to local council meetings or talks with residents about their concerns.
When he made his move to oust Daudt, Korin said GOP operatives called local activists and urged them to support the minority leader, saying control of the House could hang in the balance.
“It became very, very ugly; I was basically blacklisted,” Korin said. “He says he is on our side, but I don’t believe it.”
With trouble back home, Daudt also found himself explaining to fellow legislators how he was detained by authorities after traveling to Montana with a friend to buy a vintage Ford Bronco last summer. When the transaction soured, Daudt’s friend went back to Daudt’s car and returned brandishing the legislator’s handgun. The two then took off in Daudt’s car and the Bronco.
They were soon pulled over. Daudt was handcuffed and eventually released. His friend was arrested, charged and awaits trial in June. Daudt said he was mentoring the friend and calmed the situation before it escalated into something more dangerous.
Several Republican legislators declined to talk about any internal bickering or disagreements with Daudt, but some rivals and friends alike say privately that the Montana incident shows he might not be ready for the rigors of leadership.
Supporters are convinced Daudt did nothing wrong.
“Kurt has tried to take this man under his wings and be a good role model, but the man was not making good decisions,” said Susan Morris, an Isanti County commissioner and longtime friend of Daudt. “Kurt is amazing at diffusing situations, which is what he did here.”
Daudt said personal and political trials only make him stronger.
“There are a couple members who give me a hard time once in a while,” he said. “That’s part of this process and it makes me a better leader. I have to be a leader of the whole caucus and I can’t banish people who disagree with me. That’s part of the challenge of being a leader.”
The longest-serving GOP member of the House said there is a simple solution for Daudt’s problems.
“Winning gets rid of trouble,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “Kurt’s a winner and I believe he will lead us to victory in November. He will be our next speaker.”