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When it comes to policy, Mike McFadden’s Senate campaign is a blank slate

I’m not sure what the record is for seeking a U.S. Senate seat without disclosing issue positions, but McFadden may be giving it a run.

Although Mike McFadden declared his Senate candidacy last May, his slate remains, by reasonable standards, almost completely blank.
McFadden for Senate video screen shot

Second of two articles.

How has businessman Mike McFadden established such a dominant position in the GOP race to run against U.S. Sen. Al Franken?

It may have something to do with money. In fact, it’s hard to see what else it could have to do with.

McFadden, 49, of Sunfish Lake, has never run for office before. He was completely unknown to the general public before his name started floating as a possible Senate candidate. In fact he is probably still unknown to most Minnesotans outside of the politically obsessed.

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Although he points out that his grandmother was a Minnesotan, McFadden grew up in Omaha. He came to Minnesota to attend St. Thomas University in St. Paul (where he played football), then got a law degree from Georgetown in D.C. He is married with five sons and daughter, was actively involved with coaching his kids’ sports teams. He serves on the board of Cristo Rey, a private Jesuit High School in the Minneapolis Phillips neighborhood that is getting amazingly good results getting underprivileged kids into college.

McFadden has been endorsed by former Republican U.S. Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman. Former Sen. Rod Grams endorsed him last year shortly before he died. The list of prominent Republicans on his campaign “steering committee” glitters with the names of powerful and campaign-tested Republicans. A recent fundraising letter for McFadden was signed not only by Boschwitz and Coleman but also by former Republican Chair Bill Cooper of TCF, who represents the hard-line anti-tax wing of the party, plus top present and former executives of Cargill and Target.

In the financial disclosure required of federal candidates, McFadden reported a net worth of between $15 million and $57 million. He made his money as an investment banker. He is on leave from his job as co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market, a division of the international firm Lazard Asset Management with offices in Europe, Asia and the United States.

So far, McFadden’s has raised about $2.2 million, roughly 10 times more than the amount raised by Ortman, the best-funded of his intra-party opponents. McFadden recently said that he had $1.7 million in cash still on hand. The more he raises, the more likely the pundits are to keep taking the race seriously, and the more they take it seriously, the more money he will be able to raise.

U.S. Senate candidate 2013 fundraising

Source: FEC
Total amount raised is for all of 2013. Cash on hand totals are from December 31, 2013.

None of those numbers should make you feel sorry for Al Franken, by the way. He is also a multimillionaire (most recent disclosed net worth in the range of $4 million to $12 million), and the most recent campaign-finance disclosure indicated he has raised $18.5 million during the first five years of his current term and headed into 2014 with $4.8 million on hand.

Franken now has five years of Senate votes to characterize his policy positions. National Journal just released its annual analysis of Senate voting and found Franken to be among the most liberal senators. He is also rated as one of the most pro-Obama. His Republican opponents will take every opportunity to exploit those facts, especially if Obama’s popularity continues to slide. There is certainly nothing unusual or unfair about that.

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

Even before he was in the Senate, Franken had been publicly expressing his political views for many years in books and on his radio show, oftentimes in a tone that has been used against him politically, and perhaps that will be used that way again this year.

By contrast, McFadden started his campaign as a blank slate policy-wise. And, although he declared his Senate candidacy last May, his slate remains, by reasonable standards, almost completely blank. As far as I can tell, applying a reasonable standard about how much you have to disclose about your thinking to be said to have taken a stand on an issue, McFadden hasn’t taken any.

I’m not sure what the record is for seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate without disclosing issue positions, but McFadden, who declared his candidacy nine months ago, may be giving it a run.

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There is no “issues” section on his campaign website. He skipped the first three opportunities to debate his Republican opponents for the nomination.On Monday, he appeared at the fourth debate, but that one was closed to the press and public.

He has given a few interviews, including one to MinnPost and the Washington Post, but he has given a few, relatively non-specific answers on his issue and policy positions. His Facebook page contains some statements that relate to policy. But in every single case that I can find, the statements fall well short of giving an attentive Minnesotan a reasonable answer as to how he would vote on any matter likely to come up in the Senate.

Health-care case study

Here’s an example: McFadden says that he would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare. What would he replace it with? He has said more than once that it would be a “market-based plan.” Does that tell you anything at all other than implying — falsely — that the Affordable Care Act did away with private insurance companies or their ability to compete in the market for customers? Without the benefit of a longer statement from McFadden, it doesn’t tell me anything about the replacement.

In a petition McFadden’s campaign is currently circulating online to repeal and replace Obamacare, he says that replacement he favors is one that “will help, not hurt, all Americans.” And that's all it says about the replacement plan.

He told MinnPost’s Devin Henry that the replacement plan should include something for people with pre-existing conditions but said nothing about what it would be or, more awkwardly, how he would pay for that or how he could square it with “market-based.” Market-based logic would steer private companies away from wanting to insure those with pre-existing conditions unless they could charge extremely high premiums.

Recently, he has started adding the word “state-based” to his health-care statements. In a radio interview last week, he said that Minnesota should be allowed to develop its own plan and then he would “scream to the rest of the country to follow our example.”

I’m not an expert, and I’m sure there have been — before Obamacare and since — many federal mandates on states relating to health care, but I’m also sure that there has always been an opportunity — before Obamacare and since — for states to develop their own health-care systems as models for the nation. In fact, isn’t that how we got Obamacare, which is substantially based on the Massachusetts health-care plan that Mitt Romney signed into law when he was governor?

McFadden did say that he is working with health-care policy experts on a proposal to replace Obamacare with something better. So we may just have to be more patient to find out where McFadden on health care and a whole lot of other things. Of course, Republicans who participated in precinct caucuses have already had to take the first step without the benefit of knowing much about McFadden’s policy preferences. The McFadden card that I picked up at the registration table at my neighborhood caucus committed him to five pledges of what McFadden would work to accomplish as your U.S. Senator. One of them: “Repeal Obamacare and replace with a market-based plan.”

The other four were:

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  • Grow a healthy economy that puts Main Street first;
  • Reform and simplify the tax code;
  • Cut spending and balance the budget.
  • Improve our schools – put students, teachers and parents first.

If I had an interview with McFadden, who has said that education policy is one of his major interests, I would ask him whose interests are currently being put ahead of students, teachers and parents.

I asked for an interview with McFadden three weeks ago. His press guy said it would have to wait until after the precinct caucuses. After the caucuses, I renewed the request, but the campaign now says he will not give me an interview because it already gave one to another MinnPost reporter. Meanwhile, I’m still looking for policy specifics wherever I can find them.

Four videos

McFadden has four videos posted on his website, in which he alludes to issues, or some things that bother him about the direction he sees the country heading, but not to the degree that he associates himself with any known concrete policy that he would propose or support.

(I’ll link to the videos below, so you can check my work.)

The longest of the videos (three minutes) is titled “Meet Mike.” Narrated by his daughter (who says her dad is a “pretty cool guy” who would make a good senator). It is understandably heavy on autobiography, although with its emphasis on his family (and no mention at all of his career, other than the self-description “business leader”), he has less than 30 seconds for issues and takes no concrete positions that separate him from anyone else, as in:

I am very concerned about the direction this country is headed. We have a very stagnant economy and have amassed an enormous amount of debt, which will be pass on to our children unless something is done. Our education system is broken. We spend more money than any country in the world other than Switzerland, and we get subpar results. We need to set our expectations higher. We need to demand better. I will make sure this gets done.

The other three videos, one minute each, are pretty much substance-free. In the first, he explains why he is running:

We’re concerned about the American ethos and the loss of the American dream and what it means to be successful and the concept of earned success… We can do better as Americans. We can do better as America. And it’s never been more important.

The second one is about “opportunity,” the opportunity to pursue earned success, which, he explains:

That means you have to earn it. You’re not given it. You have to work hard. And one of the things [his wife] Mary Kate and I have learned as parents is that we to allow our children to fail. I mean they have to fail. We can’t do everything for them…

Government has become so intrusive. To try to control every part of our life. To take care of us. I believe in limited but effective government. We are so far from that. Government’s not limited. And it’s clearly not effective.

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“Limited but effective government” is a recurring mantra in McFadden’s public statements so far. Maybe you can figure out how it would translate to actions as a U.S. senator. I don’t know of any senators who advocate a government that is either unlimited or ineffective. If I could have interviewed McFadden for this piece, I would have asked him whether “limited” means “smaller,” and, if so, whether he could identify some of the ways he would seek to shrink the government.

I do assume that he will eventually supply something along these lines. I also assume that “limited” is included to show that he is conservative, without giving away much about how conservative, and “effective” is meant to separate him from some on the extreme right who sometimes seem to believe that everything government does is an attack on freedom.

The most recent of the “Minute with Mike” series is about coaching kids sports teams. McFadden has six kids and he says he has coached them all and he really likes it. As in: “I love to coach” and: “That hour and a half that I get each night coaching the little scrappers, there’s nothing better.”

Maybe my expectations are too high. I am locked in on the belief that a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate is obligated to divulge his policy thinking. But it's possible to sympathize with the risks of doing so. The other Republican candidates would certainly like to have more opportunities to portray McFadden as a RINO. As it is, one comment McFadden made in the Devin Henry interview to which I alluded above is being used by his opponents to portray him as a Second Amendment wobbler. What he said was:

McFadden: "I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment, and the right to bear arms. It does concern me that someone that’s not allowed to buy a gun at Wal-Mart because they didn’t pass a background check is allowed to go and purchase one at a gun show. I would be open to looking at expanding background checks."

Weber excited about McFadden’s chances

Vin Weber, the former congressman, lobbyist and permanent heavyweight in Minnesota Republican politics, is on the McFadden team and very excited about McFadden’s chances and gives McFadden full credit for putting the race on the map. At this point, Weber said, nominating any of the other candidates “would amount to giving the race away.”

Weber is aware that there are ideologues in the party who would rather nominate a candidate who shares their position on every issue than one who can win. “But those people have had absolutely no success in achieving their policy objectives. And there are more and more Republicans who understand that that thinking cost us control of the Senate.”

Weber doesn’t dispute, in fact he emphasized that, so far, McFadden’s impact on the race has been almost entirely about money.

Said Weber: “A year ago, nobody that I talked to thought the Minnesota Senate race was going to be competitive. Today, I would say that Franken is the favorite, but only a slight favorite. That’s almost entirely because of Mike McFadden willingness to call everybody he’d ever met and asking them for a contribution… That’s how he spent the past year. Just raising money.”

McFadden will let Minnesotans know where stands on the issues, Weber said. But his first priority had to be convincing Republican donors and PACs that there was a candidate who would have the resources to make this into a contest.

I’m sure Weber is right. And I’m sure that McFadden will eventually give Minnesotans more clues about what he is for against and explicitly within the context of things he could effect as a senator. I also suspect that over the nine months he has been in the race, McFadden could have divulged more policy-wise but that he would prefer to postpone that as long as possible, especially in hopes that he can avoid taking positions that might help him secure the nomination but that would be politically inconvenient when it was time to compete directly with Franken for persuadable voters.

Perhaps that just me being cynical. But McFadden’s spokester Tom Erickson implied as in a recent statement to the Pioneer Press about why McFadden was skipping so many debates: “Mike isn't running against any other Republican, he's running against Al Franken. And that's how we approach this campaign every day."

Here's the video: "Meet Mike."

Here's the video, titled "Sense of Duty," in which McFadden explains why he felt compelled to run:

Here's the one about the opportunity to earn success:

And here's the one about coaching: