Getting It Right in Minnesota-1

As signs grow stronger that 2010 will be a Republican year, the number of candidates seeking Republican nominations for the House and Senate grows. The problem with this mushrooming of candidacies is that they lead to crowded nomination battles, the exhaustion of resources in contested primaries, and a weakened nominee in the fall.

Coupled with the fact that the Republican Party is increasingly a conservative party and more GOP candidates are on the right than not, there is a case to be made that too spirited of a competition for the Republican nomination for the House and Senate could result in a loss in the fall.

In Minnesota’s 1st District, Republican contenders appear aware of this and have done something about it. The four Republicans vying for nomination to oppose liberal Democratic Rep. Tim Walz have all agreed to abide by the endorsement of the districtwide Republican convention April 17th.

Although there are avenues for any of them to take the battle into a primary, the “four in one” are having none of it. After the delegates to the districtwide convention vote to endorse, they will join hands behind the endorsed contender and focus their energies on defeating Walz—who rode a Democratic tide in ’06 to edge out six-term Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht and won re-election in ’08 by a margin of two-to-one over physician and GOP nominee Brian Davis.

Hold on, you say. Doesn’t this business of party leaders blessing a candidate sound like that in New York’s 23rd District last year, when the GOP nod went to liberal Dede Scozzafava, the party activists bolted to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, and Democrat Bill Owen won the seat? Hardly. Where Scozzafava was chosen by a handful of county party chairmen, the nominee in Minnesota-1 will be selected by about 250 delegates to the districtwide convention. The delegates have been elected from county conventions, whose delegates were themselves initially elected at the local and precinct levels.

The nominee, then, will reflect the will of the Republican grass-roots in the 1st District.

In addition, rather than simply getting a majority of the convention, a candidate must win 60%—150 delegates—to secure endorsement.

There is precedent for this “all for one, one for all” attitude among Republicans. Minnesota’s GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty told me he cited the same attitude among his nomination opponents as key to election in 2002. In 1946, after Democratic Rep. Jerry Voorhees had won his Southern California House seat after ten years of divisive GOP primaries, Republicans formed a “Committee of 100”—local leaders who would hear out candidates to oppose Voorhees and make an endorsement that all the candidates would agree to rather than pursue their candidacies in the primary. The committee met, made their endorsement, the runners-up deferred and Voorhees was defeated by the GOP nominee. His name was Richard Nixon.

Momentum for “Passionate Conservative”

In a state where the term “Republican” and “moderate” were mutually inclusive not so long ago, a sign that times and the GOP are changing is that three of the four contenders in Minnesota-1 are strong conservatives: Jim Hagedorn, a former U.S. Treasury Department official now in the medical devices business; Allen Quist, former state legislator and famed in the 1980’s as the leader of the party’s evangelical conservative faction known as the “Quistians;” and reserve U.S. Army Col. Jim Engstrand, just back from a tour in Iraq. The fourth candidate is State Rep. Randy Demmer, who is identified more with the “old guard” moderate GOP than grass-roots conservatives.

With the county conventions just over and the delegates to the districtwide convention set to meet in days, there are strong signs that the momentum is with the 47-year-old Hagedorn, whose father Tom is still warmly remembered on the right as a stalwart conservative Republican U.S. House member from 1974-82, (when moderates still dominated the Minnesota GOP). With Quist considered by many to have been out of politics too long and Engstrand a political newcomer, Hagedorn has been garnering increasing support by being what he calls a “passionate conservative.”

On Hagedorn’s brochure, in fact, is the legend “Compassionate Conservative” with the “Com” crossed out—a not-so-subtle reference to the Minnesotan’s distaste for the policies of the Republican President who coined the term “compassionate conservative.” As Hagedorn told me, “I was saying as far back as November 3, 2004 (the day after President Bush’s reelection) that congressional Republicans needed to quit being go along, get along politicians and begin standing up to the Bush Administration’s “big-government conservatism.” I guess it took the big losses in ’06 and ’08 that gave us Barack Obama, the most liberal President in history, for other Republicans to come around to where I was.”

In spelling out what he means by a “passionate conservative,” Hagedorn means “defeating the liberals by repealing and replacing Obamacare; enacting Reagan-JFK across-the-board tax cuts to create private sector jobs; slashing domestic spending; unleashing U.S. fossil fuel and nuclear energy production; standing firm for innocent life and traditional marriage; and taking a hard-line on captured terrorists (“Give them last rites, not Miranda rights!”).

He also vows a hard-hitting campaign against Walz, who, in Hagedorn’s words, “has voted to impose Washington, D.C.,-based control over our lives and livelihoods, everything I am committed to stop—big-government healthcare, Keynesian stimulus packages, cap and trade, abortion on demand, and closing Guantanamo Bay. Walz’s voting card is locked in Pelosi’s purse!”

Recalling his congressional liaison days for Treasury’s Financial Management Service and crafting legislation to end paper check-writing services in government, Hagedorn proudly notes his work as a “Washington, D.C., government reformer—sort of a guerilla fighter behind enemy bureaucrat lines—who persuaded his own federal agency and the Congress to cut spending and eliminate bureaucrat jobs.”

Hagedorn’s electronic funds transfer bill was signed into law in 1996 (“It has saved taxpayers over $1 billion, modernized payment delivery to citizens and eliminated several check processing centers.”) Hagedorn promises to revive the anti-bureaucracy agenda of Ronald Reagan (who is featured prominently in his brochure, from the time his congressman-father brought the young Hagedorn to meet his hero, the 40th President). “I know where the bureaucrat bodies are buried and the tricks liberals use to expand programs, and I will use my government reform experience to help House Republicans tame the federal government and make taxpayers proud.”

Hagedorn’s fiscal responsibility also extends to his campaign spending. “You don’t need to spend big money to make an impassioned case to a few hundred fellow activists—just a good website, effective brochures, solid communications skills, shoe leather, and conservative convictions,” says the candidate, who proudly notes he will spend less than $50,000 on the endorsement, yet run a full campaign. “We’re saving our financial firepower for Tim Walz and the general election.”

Hagedorn also told me that his father Tom had come back to the state to speak on his behalf at several county conventions. Did people remember him after decades out of politics, I asked?”

“Southern Minnesotans still remember Dad, but he’s been out of office long enough that liberals have forgotten why they hated him,” he replied, “but I’m working hard to remind them.”