Republicans vying for U.S. Senate endorsement scrambled Friday and into Saturday to line up support from divided party activists, in an hours-long contest that started unpredictably and narrowed to just two candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg emerged as a dark horse front-runner Friday night, forcing out every other candidate but investment banker Mike McFadden, who has already vowed to fight on to a primary. Sen. Julianne Ortman withdrew shortly before midnight Friday.

Results of the seventh ballot early Saturday had Dahlberg with 54 percent vs. 44.1 percent for McFadden. Before an eighth could be held, the convention voted to recess until 9 a.m.

After losing badly in the 2012 Senate race, many of the delegates at Friday’s convention were in a pragmatic frame of mind.

Even though he wore a red, white and blue Ortman sticker on his lapel, Rochester delegate Fred Nobrega said he would support whoever was capable of the primary goal: Unseating U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

“It doesn’t really make much difference ultimately,” Nobrega said. “The important thing is we want Franken out.”

To that end, Dahlberg stressed his credentials as a Republican who had won office in the DFL stronghold of St. Louis County.

“We need to turn Franken’s blue counties to Republican red,” Dahlberg told delegates. “You can be true to your conservative values and you can still have a broad approach to appeal to people.” An attorney in Duluth who just finished serving 25 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, Dahlberg said he represents a district with “hardworking, blue-collar Democratic roots,” filled with people who are “compassionate for the truly needy but they’re not for foolish spending.”

McFadden, who early on was chastised by some for focusing more on his primary strategy, appeared to be wooing delegates heavily Friday. He dazzled convention-goers with an elaborate balloon drop and live fireworks inside Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center on Friday, and came in ahead of Ortman in early rounds but remained slightly behind Dahlberg.

“I’m here today because Washington is broken,” McFadden said in his speech to delegates. “Our freedoms have gotten smaller … and the American dream has grown further out of reach for more Americans.” He stressed his superior fundraising with literature that noted he had amassed more donations than the rest of the GOP Senate field combined.

Franken, whom Democrats will endorse for a second term Saturday in Duluth, took office in 2009 after beating former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes in a race that led to a recount and legal challenge.

On Friday, Coleman took the stage to make a special appeal to delegates.

“In 2014, whoever our candidate is, I ask that you stand with me and make sure there is no recount and there is no do-over,” said Coleman, who is supporting McFadden.

About 2,000 delegates throughout the state will decide upon the endorsement, with 60 percent required to secure it.

Remaining divided

But no matter who wins endorsement, Republicans may remain divided until the Aug. 12 primary.

Both McFadden and state Rep. Jim Abeler have said they will run in the primary regardless of who’s endorsed.

Some delegates were openly resentful of those candidates not honoring the endorsement. During McFadden’s speech to delegates, a few could be heard hooting loudly: “Abide by the endorsement!”

McFadden lives in the St. Paul suburb of Sunfish Lake and is on leave as CEO of investment banking firm Lazard Middle Market. He circulated campaign materials on the convention floor, noting his campaign has $1.85 million in the bank compared to $285,000 for the remaining candidates combined.

Franken has repeatedly proved himself to be one of the national Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers, and had nearly $6 million after the first three months of the year, the most recent reporting period.

While McFadden bashed politicians from both political parties, Ortman put an emphasis on her legislative service. The attorney and Chanhassen resident was elected to the state Senate in 2002, representing a Carver County-area district. She would have been the first woman ever endorsed by Republicans for either a U.S. Senate or governor’s race.

Sharing similar issues

While offering different styles, the candidates touched on similar issues that ranged from disdain for Washington politicians to support for gun ownership rights to anger at the size of the national debt and the ongoing scandal over poor treatment of patients at federal veterans hospitals.

With few major policy disagreements among the candidates, delegate Dennis Hogan of Edina said he was convinced by McFadden’s campaign apparatus. “I think Mike has the best chance of beating Al Franken,” Hogan said. 

Ben Golnik, a veteran Republican strategist, said Dahlberg’s surprise showing indicated a lack of excitement among delegates about the whole field. McFadden put off many by not honoring the endorsement, Golnik said, while Ortman tried to portray herself as more conservative than her state Senate voting record suggested.

Golnik, who said he is neutral in the Senate endorsing race, said that in Dahlberg, “I think people saw a genuine, down-to-earth, real guy.”

In addition to the Senate race, delegates on Friday quickly lined up candidates for other statewide offices. They endorsed state Sen. Scott Newman to run for attorney general, former state Rep. Dan Severson to run for secretary of state and former Long Lake mayor Randy Gilbert to run for state auditor.

The other main event at the convention comes Saturday, when the same delegates are tasked with endorsing a candidate for governor. The main contenders will be Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former state Rep. Marty Seifert and state Sen. Dave Thompson. Two other prominent candidates, businessman Scott Honour and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, are not seeking the endorsement and plan to head to the primary.

Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Abby Simons contributed to this report.

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049