WASECA – The candidate drew a glance of vague recognition from a woman wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt as she passed through the exhibits building at the Waseca County Fair.
Then it clicked.
“Hi! I’ve seen you on the commercial! You got punched like this!” she said, playfully aiming for a shot to his groin as he quickly jumped away. Safely out of range, he extended his hand.
“Hi, I’m Mike McFadden. I’m running for U.S. Senate.”
With high aspirations for his first-ever political campaign, the Sunfish Lake investment banker is presenting himself as everything that Washington isn’t — a tactic that appeared to resonate with some gridlock-weary Minnesotans.
As Sen. Al Franken attempts to burnish his image with a series of ads featuring his legislative accomplishments, McFadden has taken the irreverent route, with ads showing him coaching a youth football team and ending with one of the waist-high players appearing to punch him in the groin. McFadden signs off on the ad grinning at the camera, doubled over, talking in a high-pitched voice.
TIME Magazine declared the political ad one of the best of the summer. Others say the ad is a bit of clever reimaging to distance McFadden from a Mitt Romney-like image as the head of a global asset management firm, the job he stepped down from to run for the Senate.
‘I’m an American’
The football advertisement is consistent with McFadden’s campaign message as he travels the state intending to visit all 87 counties. In coffee shops, businesses and county fairs, the married father of six presents himself as the anti-politician while focusing a broad-based message on the economy, health care, energy and education. Repeatedly recognized and asked if he’s a Democrat or a Republican, McFadden first responds with, “I’m an American.”
In that same vein, McFadden criticizes his Democratic opponent and laments all of Washington, but doesn’t hesitate to offer unsolicited praise of Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in an early bid for middle-of-the-road voters.
McFadden applauded the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that exempted corporations with religious owners from having to pay for contraceptive coverage under their insurance plans.
But he also said he would like the Food and Drug Administration to fast-track the availability of over-the-counter oral contraceptives for adults. His ad says “Obamacare should be sacked,” but upon questioning, McFadden acknowledges the country should not go back to the pre-Affordable Care Act status quo. Instead, he advocates for state- and market-based health care.
On immigration, McFadden said he dislikes seeing families broken up, but believes Washington should secure the borders while devising a solution for the undocumented families already here.
Still, McFadden stops short of calling himself a moderate.
“I don’t know what that means,” McFadden said. “What my approach has been is to tell people what I believe and you put the labels on it.”
The avoidance of controversy and lack of a crystal-clear message is unsurprising this early in the campaign, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report and a close follower of Senate and gubernatorial races.
“I think it’s indicative of some candidates in the Republican party,” Duffy said. “It’s still like he’s being very cautious about the right. Maybe he learned a lesson from watching other candidates, or he doesn’t want to let Franken make the general election about these issues. I don’t think he’s that far to the right, frankly.”
But that hasn’t stopped Democratic groups from painting McFadden in the darkest colors, as an issue-dodger, job eliminator and blank slate for right-wing views. The Alliance For a Better Minnesota (ABM), a Democratic fundraising umbrella group funded in part by unions, said McFadden’s work in investment banking has resulted in global layoffs from the restructuring of companies — a characterization McFadden’s camp opposes, saying he had no operational authority over the companies whose sale he facilitated.
“I think McFadden is working hard not to tell voters what he really believes or who he really is because his positions likely don’t match up with most Minnesotans,” said ABM executive director Carrie Lucking. “I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t know where he stands; it’s that he doesn’t want voters to know where he stands.”
McFadden said his focus on non-polarizing issues merely reflects what is important to Minnesotans.
“I want to focus on things that unite us, and I can tell you that as I’ve gone around the state that’s what Minnesotans want,” he said. “They want a better job, they want higher wages, they want a health care system that works.”
In May, McFadden stood onstage at the state Republican convention facing some delegates unhappy with his decision to run unendorsed in a primary. They ultimately endorsed him anyway over candidates who had pledged to drop out if they weren’t selected. U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who lost to Franken after the 2009 recount and who is McFadden’s honorary campaign chair, said McFadden’s victory was no fluke.
“I know he won that endorsement because he outworked everybody,” Coleman said. “He’s got an incredible work ethic, winning an endorsement that nobody thought he could win, and that’s what counts for his accomplishments.”
McFadden is running a general election strategy, but he still faces a primary against four other GOP candidates, including veteran state Rep. Jim Abeler, David Carlson, Patrick Munro and perennial candidate Ole Savior. McFadden shows little concern about the primary, reminding voters only that he needs their vote in November.
“You’ve got a tough fight, but I understand your primary is going to go well for you,” said Rich Enochs, a staffer at the National Trout Center in Preston, where McFadden paid a visit earlier in July.
“We’re here to beat Sen. Franken and I’m really encouraged,” McFadden responded.
After an hourlong visit, McFadden, his daughter Molly and a staffer loaded up and took off for Caledonia. Enochs, a retired businessman with no political affiliation, said he found McFadden affable, but his vote wasn’t yet locked down.
“I know where Franken comes from,” Enochs said. “I know how he votes. I know what his ideas and issues are. I don’t know McFadden’s.”