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Fourth District GOP challenger juggles college papers, position papers

John Meyer is prepared to turn his first campaign for national office — his first campaign, that is — into a full-time job.He just has to graduate first. By Brian Voerding

John Meyer is prepared to turn his first campaign for national office — his first campaign, that is — into a full-time job.

He just has to graduate first.

The 24-year-old Hamline University senior and student-government leader is running against Rep. Betty McCollum in the Fourth District, and to say the task is daunting is some understatement. After all, Meyer is a moderate Republican with scant political experience and no name recognition, running against a four-term Democrat in a district that hasn’t elected a Republican representative in 60 years.

Herculean might be a better word.

But there’s a different way of looking at Meyer’s efforts: The campaign might be the best learning experience of his college career.

Political at age 6

Meyer’s political beliefs began forming when he 6 years old. During the first Gulf War, he drew a map of Iraq on a toy chalkboard he had, and then drew a line through it — “My little protest against Saddam Hussein,” he said.

In high school, he took a quiz to determine whether he slanted left or right. He figured the quiz would tell him he was a Democrat. He was wrong.

After graduation in 2002, Meyer enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard and then headed off to Hamline. He got in a semester, and then was called to serve. He trained, returned to Hamline in the fall of 2003, and then left in summer 2004 to serve a year in Saudi Arabia, helping protect a Saudi military compound outside Riyadh. 

He returned in January 2006, just in time to jump into the busy midterm election year and kickstart his political activism. He helped work on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s re-election campaign, and was later elected treasurer of the state College Republicans.

All of that work got Meyer thinking about a possible career as a public servant, but he wasn’t sure where to start. He considered smaller races, like school board or city council, but was more interested in national and international policy. He thought about applying for an internship.

Then one day, somebody suggested that he run for Congress.

A grass-roots campaign, beginning on campus
Meyer’s lead campaign team consists of two other Hamline students: His campaign manager, Ed Elfmann, is a senior, and his director of communications, David McCarthy, is a sophomore.

Meyer only has classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which leaves the rest of the week open for phone calls, fine-tuning positions, planning public events, and strategizing with McCarthy and Elfmann.

And, of course, writing papers and studying for tests.

“If you have a 10-page paper due in class, that has to be the focus,” Meyer said. “But right now there isn’t a lot of schoolwork going on, so I’m spending a few hours a night calling delegates.”

Soon after he declared, in late January, Meyer and his team wondered about how seriously people would take a college student running for one of the highest offices in the country.

They shouldn’t have.

“That was one of our concerns,” McCarthy said. “But there are lots of new people coming into the caucus. People are excited that a young person is running.”

While no national pollster has spent time handicapping the race yet, Meyer is clearly serious about it. He’s earnest and charismatic, and his political-science major combined with his service has given him a background in foreign policy. He’s also focused on reforming economic and tax policies, his only stances among the issues he says labels him “a true conservative.”

“My experience has led me to a point where I can do this job, where I can run this campaign and represent the people of this district in a way they haven’t been represented before,” Meyer said.

For now, Meyer is focused on the endorsement (he has at least one challenger, lawyer Ed Matthews), and he’ll continue building on the support he said he’s found in the community by campaigning and speaking at public events.

And then in a few weeks, he’ll add another item to his already packed to-do list: Order a cap and gown.