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Jim Abeler has just a few seconds to squeeze in his pitch to the rush of the men late for afternoon prayers.
“Hello sir,” the U.S. Senate candidate repeats with a smile to each passerby entering the south Minneapolis mosque, holding out brochures printed in Somali and English. “I have something for you.”
They politely take the fliers and hurry inside. Others stop to chat. With little more than a week until the primary that would make or break his yearlong campaign, the four-term Republican state representative from Anoka knows every face counts — particularly within the minority communities he has prioritized on the trail. He is a frequent visitor to Somali malls, even getting his haircut there on a break between passing out fliers.
“They’re extremely ambitious, they work hard and they want to move onto the next level,” Abeler said. “When I visit more than once, people say ‘You came back.’ I tell them I’m interested. This is how the Senate thing is done. I’d love to help these communities.”
Those same traits define Abeler’s campaign: A scrappy, do-it-yourself endeavor with hundreds of stops in a retooled ambulance that carries a dual message: The country’s in trouble, and Abeler is willing to work with others to fix it.
On paper, Abeler looks like a solid GOP bet for U.S. Senate. A chiropractor with six kids, Abeler has represented the Anoka area in the Legislature for 16 years, honing an expertise on health care. But Abeler lacks both personal wealth and the financial backing possessed by investment banker Mike McFadden, the novice candidate who wrested the party endorsement from Abeler and other challengers.
The others dropped out, but Abeler has pressed on.
Money has been tight. McFadden has raised more than $3 million compared to $147,000 for Abeler.
“We haven’t got the money, but a lot of people like us, while the people who like Mike say ‘Well, he’s got a lot of resources,’ ” Abeler said. “He’s a nice guy, I wish he was my neighbor, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good in Washington. He’s gotten so close to the political interests there. You learn in politics that nobody is ever your good friend.”
Abeler’s independence and pragmatism stood out at the Legislature, and he’s carrying those traits into the campaign. He’s the only challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken with experience in office in a primary that includes candidates David Carlson, Patrick Munro and Ole Savior.
Describing himself as “all in” for the campaign, Abeler opted not to run again for his House seat after 16 years.
He’s succinct on his reason for walking away. “To do a better thing.” he said.
At the top of his list is fixing the Affordable Care Act, “a very poorly written law” that he acknowledges is not going away.
“They imposed a national model on a really well-functioning state model, that’s what’s really wrong with it,” Abeler said. “Some states will benefit by that but Minnesota has hardly benefited. There’s nothing we haven’t thought of that we weren’t already doing.”
Abeler has drawn some once powerful figures to his camp.
Former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie endorsed Abeler after hearing to his stance on the health law, and the “legislative wisdom” he has to fix the glitches he sees. Quie said it’s a mistake for parties to demand that people vote for the endorsed candidate, pointing to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2010 primary victory over endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“I like people who vote with their conscience,” Quie said of Abeler. “I think that’s what a person is elected to do — make decisions based on his understanding of the situation.”
Late last week, former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger also threw his support to Abeler.
Durenberger said the Senate needs a pragmatic and experienced Republican leader, adding that Abeler would bring needed balance to the state’s delegation in Washington.
“Jim is a proven leader in legislative policy fields, especially health and health care,” he said.
Abeler sits outside a Somali barbershop, listening to Rorisa Osman and Samia Ahmed, a husband and wife from Ethiopia. Each work two jobs, Ahmed said, and it’s not fair that their unemployed next-door neighbor doesn’t have to pay rent.
“Can you stop this welfare?” Ahmed asks, her voice rising. “They take from me and give it to others. Them housing these people, there’s nothing wrong with that, but they can go get a job.”
“I’m working on that,” Abeler responds. “I understand the topic. We’ve been trying forever to focus on people who really need it and people who don’t. Tell your friends so when I go to Washington I can make a difference on that.”
Ahmed left with a pile of Abeler’s brochures, promising him she’d hand them out to her friends.
“As long as you do the right thing,” she said.
If elected, Abeler said he’d seize on the opportunities he believes Franken neglected. As the incumbent touts his legislative accomplishments in television advertisements about taking on Wall Street and removing tainted food from grocery store shelves, Abeler, who has no television advertising, is incredulous.
“When you have a project that passes 100-0, it’s not controversial. Who’s against food safety? No, I’m for food non-safety. I want my family to be poisoned,” Abeler said. “Let’s go balance the budget. Let’s find a way to serve more disabled people with less money and reform the way we do our business. That’s what I did. What sounds harder to you?”
Abeler is realistic about his run, calling it “possible, but nontraditional.” If he doesn’t’ make it, he said, he’s likely done with politics and will return to running the family business.
“I never ran for the House to be ambitious. I went to go work on stuff,” he said. “I’m a chiropractor. We solve problems. We try to handle things in a logical, natural way and I carried that forward into the Legislature. I try to find a way to build rapport.”