Minnesota House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt raised money, recruited Republican candidates and then doorknocked with them all over the state.
When those efforts paid off in a Republican House victory Tuesday, vaulting them back into the majority status and providing a lone bright spot on a day when every statewide GOP candidate lost, Daudt's place as the next House speaker might seem assured.
Instead, Daudt is facing a stiff leadership challenge from Reps. Matt Dean, of Dellwood, and Rod Hamilton, of Mountain Lake, with other contenders possible. The Republican caucus, which has some history of factionalism, meets Friday to vote on its leadership. And the winner will need more than just a plurality. Republicans require 60 percent to win leadership — 44 of the 72 Republicans elected Tuesday.
Daudt has significant support from caucus members, including new and veteran members.
"One of my rules is: You go with the one that brought you to the dance. Kurt brought us to the dance and he deserves our support," said Greg Davids, of Preston, the GOP caucus' longest serving member.
Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said he was thankful for Daudt's work in outstate Minnesota. Republicans held onto every House seat, flipped 10 districts outstate and one in the suburbs. They needed a net of seven new seats to win the majority.
"I'm a farmer by trade, and you don't change horses while still working the field," Swedzinski said.
Daudt, a former Republican operative who was elected in 2010, said he was unfazed by the opposition.
"These things are common with leadership elections," he said. "At the end of the day, I am very confident I will be elected as speaker."
Daudt praised Dean as a "great person" and promised eventual unity, but pointed to his experience: "Now I have the same leadership — in fact more — than Matt Dean does. He was majority leader for two years. I've been minority leader for two years. And the difference is I've been the sole leadership of the caucus, while he had the speaker above him."
Dean pledged to support whomever wins. But he said Minnesota is now a blue dot surrounded by Republican states and he would use his speakership to make the House the place where Minnesota Republicans begin their resurgence.
"If we're going to win the argument and the vote, we need to enact conservative, practical solutions," said Dean, who has served a decade in the House. He also said he knows Minnesotans don't want partisan gridlock — a lesson he says he learned as majority leader in 2010-11, after which Republicans lost the House.
Daudt said some deal-making with a re-elected DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL-controlled Senate is inevitable. "Sometimes I think if I believe in three and you believe in one, then two is our compromise," he said. "Sometimes that works, but there are certain situations where that doesn't work … What we need to do is do what's right for Minnesotans."
Hamilton, a pork producer by trade, said he offers a clear alternative to his colleagues. "Kurt Daudt is a wonderful person and Matt Dean, as well. I just think people should have choices," he said.
Hamilton said he's proven his ability to work with other legislators and with Dayton, citing the omnibus agriculture bill he helped pass as Agriculture Committee chairman in 2011 even as a stalemate shuttered the government.
He also pointed to his work with the Hmong community and other nontraditional GOP groups, saying Republicans need to expand their coalition if they are to remain competitive.
Hamilton's advice for the candidates for leadership: "Bring your 'A' game."
On Thursday, DFL House members picked current Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, to lead them in the minority next year.