As Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt moves through the final, frantic days of the legislative session, Ben Golnik is usually at his side to help game out the politics of high-stakes legislative votes, scan headlines for the latest Capitol narrative and field a constant stream of texts and e-mails from lawmakers, lobbyists, allies and reporters.
Golnik, 40, sports a proper suit often paired with rattlesnake-skin boots. They betray this canny Republican operative's central Florida roots — and his reputation among political friends and enemies for a venomous bite.
The executive director of the House Republican Caucus, Golnik was central to the successful effort by Daudt and Republicans to consolidate power in the Minnesota Legislature over the past few years even as the party struggled in statewide races. In the weeks and months ahead, he'll counsel Daudt on a potential run for governor — one that, if successful, would further entrench Golnik's own power in St. Paul.
Admirers say Golnik, as much as anyone, has brought within reach a prize once considered unthinkable: total GOP control of Minnesota government.
"He's the best Republican operative in Minnesota today, and one of the best I've ever seen," said Chris Georgacas, a former state GOP chairman and current CEO of Goff Public, a lobbying and public relations firm.
His boss is just as effusive: "He has a lot to do with the success we've had in the past two elections," Daudt said. Golnik draws a state paycheck of about $125,000, among the highest-paid legislative staff.
Golnik has his fingers in all aspects of campaigns. He raises money from wealthy donors. He selects and recruits candidates who best fit a district, and who come to owe him and Daudt for their seats. He hectors reporters, urging them to kill unfriendly stories. He analyzes polling data. He writes attack ads.
A Golnik story: Small talk on the House floor earlier this year led to speculation about U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who is mulling a run for governor. Golnik dug into his mental opposition research file on Nolan, quickly pointing out that the DFL congressman was liberal enough in 1980 to back then-Sen. Edward Kennedy over President Jimmy Carter for re-election. Golnik was barely out of diapers at the time.
Many of his peers are moved by conservative ideology. Golnik is driven, he acknowledged, by competitive desire above all else.
Desperate to recruit now-Rep. Sandy Layman for the 2016 election, he drove 200 miles to see her in a snowstorm, totaling his car.
"When I'm playing chess with my kid, I don't like to lose," said the father of three, who lives in St. Paul.
It's why he prefers elections to the policy grind of the Legislature, where wins are usually incremental. Elections by contrast are a clearly defined competition, he said.
Detractors say this obsessive focus on the next election — and a win-at-all-costs mentality — has brought D.C.-style politics to Minnesota, with every issue fodder for a potential attack ad rather than grounds for compromise.
"How much of [gridlock] is him whispering in legislators' ears about the next election?" asked Zach Rodvold, a DFL operative on the losing end of the 2014 and 2016 battles for the state House majority.
Some fellow Republicans, asked about Golnik, preferred to stay mum. Golnik makes no apologies for a hard-edged style, elevating "drawing contrasts" — his frequent euphemism for attack politics — into a life philosophy.
"I think everything in life is about drawing contrasts," he said. Passive aggressive without the passive, he jokes.
Golnik's story is less legislative aide than street brawler and hustler, with a dash of international intrigue: from Florida Dixie to a leafy New England liberal arts pedigree, from the wild west of post-Soviet Russia to the halls of Congress, from hopeless campaigns to an effort to turn reliably Democratic Minnesota from blue to purple to red.
Raised in Orlando, Golnik went to a big, diverse high school and hung around the NBA arena, scalping tickets and scoring autographed memorabilia to sell. He went to Middlebury College in Vermont, known as a "little Ivy" for its exclusivity, sight unseen because they gave him the best financial aid. But he's still paying off student loans two decades later.
On a whim, Golnik took Russian and wound up spending his junior year in Russia, where he became fluent in a notoriously difficult language. There was a job offer from the National Security Agency, but he turned it down.
After a stint on Capitol Hill and some campaign work, Golnik moved to Minnesota in 2005 to work for the state Republican Party. As he worked the next year to re-elect Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who held on in a terrible year for the GOP, Golnik got an education in how to bury your opponent in $750,000 in negative ads.
His efforts on behalf of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign at the 2008 state GOP convention have taken on almost mythical status among party insiders. The red-hat-wearing McCain delegates were a well-organized brigade armed with headsets and hand signals as they beat back the insurgent campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
"I wanted to choke him," said Nathan Hansen, a Republican attorney and activist for Paul that year.
Now, the two are friendly, demonstrating another Golnik trait: He reconciles with one-time opponents.
"It's never personal with him. It's just business," said Linden Zakula, deputy chief of staff to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and occasional drinking pal to Golnik.
During the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominating fight, Golnik worked for then-state Rep. Marty Seifert, who was running against U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, at the time also a state representative. The campaign included a lot of heat about Emmer's decades-old DWI charges, along with legislation Emmer supported that was alleged to be soft on drunken drivers. Things got nasty.
"No one can be in the game as long as he has and not ruffle some feathers," Seifert said. "In his case it wasn't always feather ruffling. It was feather plucking."
In 2010, Golnik helped Republicans flip 16 seats to take control of the state Senate — a shocker that few in the state's political class saw coming.
Two years later, Republicans lost majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Golnik created an independent, corporate-funded group called the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, data-driven in its approach and relentless in its attacks on DFLers.
Golnik dropped a load of late money in targeted races that others viewed as unwinnable, helping House Republicans — now led by Daudt, an old pal from the Seifert campaign — win the majority in 2014.
Daudt became speaker and brought on Golnik to run things. Golnik set about building a team — a favorite word of the sports-crazed operative — and creating a professional political operation: "Make it more hard hitting and aggressive, with a goal of winning every news cycle," he said.
Golnik is all in with Daudt if he decides to run for governor in what's likely to be a crowded GOP field.
"Of the likely candidates he'd be the strongest by far," Golnik said of the second-term speaker. "He connects with people, and he's shown a strong ability to raise money."
And, the DFL should be warned: Golnik sees the governor's race as the ultimate trophy.
"Everybody knows we can nibble around the edges here at the Legislature," Golnik said. "But we need a governor."