A restraining order. A claim that someone misrepresented their military service. A complaint alleging illegal campaigning filed with the Federal Election Commission. And that was just last week.
In Minnesota’s Second and Seventh Districts, Republican candidates may have been feeling the pressure: in the days before Saturday’s endorsing conventions, held via Zoom videoconference, Republican candidates leveled accusations of unethical, or in some cases, illegal behavior.
Cook Political Report, a non-partisan organization that evaluates congressional races around the U.S, currently calls these two races the most competitive in the state. Both are currently represented by Democrats: Rep. Angie Craig in CD2 and Rep. Collin Peterson in CD7.
But despite the last-minute political strife, both conventions ended up with endorsements: Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach in District 7 and Marine veteran and first-time candidate Tyler Kistner in District 2.
No third chances
If Dave Hughes had won the endorsement in the Seventh District, it would have been his third time taking on the job of trying to unseat Peterson. But he faced a lot of competition this year: In addition to three other candidates, Jayesun Sherman, Joel Novak, Noel Collis; Hughes had a well-funded and well-known challenger: eight-term state senator and former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach.
Fischbach was recruited by Rep. Tom Emmer, head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. She received an early endorsement from Kevin McCarthy, the ranking Republican in the House.
While President Trump had endorsed Hughes prior to the general election in 2018, the President’s campaign committee asked Hughes to stop using their endorsement. And then Trump endorsed Fischbach prior to the convention.
By the end of March, Fischbach had raised around $593,000, putting her well in front of the rest of Peterson’s potential challengers. Collis raised about $490,000, much of it a personal loan. Hughes took in only $60,500, with Novak taking in about $12,000 and Sherman taking in about $7,000. Peterson came close to outraising all of them combined, with close to $950,000.
A fun meetup on Zoom
In the days leading up to the convention, Fischbach emphasized her endorsement from the president, while Hughes touted local endorsements, like Tim Benoit, former county commissioner and an auctioneer from Dassel.
On April 28, Hughes filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging Fischbach illegally coordinated with two other PACs: National Right to Life Victory Fund, run by Fischbach’s mother, and the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Federal PAC, which is run by her husband.
Hughes also alleged Fischbach’s campaign manager, Sam Winter, tried to harass him and cut into his speeches by calling his landline phone to disrupt his speeches to county-level conventions prior to the district-level convention. (MinnPost tried to contact Winter and will update the story if we receive a response.)
“Because of my call waiting service, each of those 34 calls took 1-2 seconds of my speech, completely chopping up my message to the delegates,” Hughes said in a statement. “Winter’s calls were nonstop on my cell phone and campaign landline for nearly 2 dozen conventions trying to disrupt my speeches and distract my train of thought. Winter’s attacks on my campaign were a disservice to this district and reveal complete contempt for our political process.”
Hughes was granted a temporary restraining order against Winter by the Kittson County Sheriff’s Department.
When it came time to vote at the convention, there was no decisive win for Fischbach. It took eight consecutive ballots for the former lieutenant governor to secure an endorsement. The first few votes removed candidates other than Fischbach and Hughes. But it took another few rounds of voting to convince delegates that she was the better candidate than Hughes to take on Peterson.
Convention rules dictate that a candidate needs to receive at least 60 percent support in order to earn an endorsement. And until two candidates remain, the candidate receiving the fewest votes on the second and proceeding ballots is dropped.
At one point, it seemed as if the party was going to vote for no endorsement. They put it to a vote, but the proposal only received 19 percent support.
When it seemed as if there wouldn’t be any changes to the vote counts, the party suspended the rules in order to let the two candidates speak. Fischbach spoke first, after winning a coin flip. And her message was simple: She’s the one that had the support of the president.
“President Trump knows that I can beat Collin Peterson this fall,” she said. “And I ask you to join President Trump in endorsing me.”
The final result, by the eighth ballot, was 65 to 35. Hughes’ initial 40 percent and high-point of 43 percent had been shaved down to a slim 35.
Hughes did not endorse Fischbach. Nor has he said anything on social media since. But at the conference, he did end on a cordial note, saying: “Congrats to Michelle Fischbach.”
The first ballot
While CD-7’s convention stretched out hour by hour, in the Second District Kistner won on the first ballot.
Kistner had racked up endorsements, earning praise from Steve Drazkowski, a Minnesota legislator initially considered to be a contender for the race; former state legislator Doug Wardlow; and Farmington City Council Member Robyn Craig.
None of the Second District Republican candidates’ fundraising came close to incumbent Rep. Angie Craig, who raised close to $3 million to-date by the end of March. But Kistner was the strongest fundraiser of the Republicans running, raising around $157,000. Rick Olson, a former state legislator from Michigan, loaned himself $80,000 in order to take in about $108,000. Cashin took in about $65,000. Regina Barr, a former Minnesota state legislator, took in about $50,000. And Kerry Zeiler, another contender, didn’t report any fundraising.
As in the Seventh District, Republicans in the Second District saw their share of cutthroat campaigning. In the days before the convention, Cashin suggested that Kistner implied that he had combat experience (he does not) and called on him to release his DD214 form, a document detailing his military service. Kistner initially did not release the form, telling the Prior Lake American: “even basic details could help foreign adversaries and put other service members at risk.”
But prior to the convention, Kistner released his form, saying. “I’m extremely proud of my service in the United States Marine Corps,” he wrote. “That is why I can no longer sit back and watch other candidates in this race attack my service record out of pure desperation to score political points at the last minute of the campaign.”
In a statement, Cashin said that Kistner was being dishonest. “Tyler Kistner has said he is ‘the most decorated military member in this race,’ and has made multiple statements needing clarification. As more and more veterans enter the political arena, it is incumbent on both Tyler and me to set the highest standard of transparency for those who will come after us.”
On convention day, Kistner won with 62 percent of the vote.
After the convention, Barr tweeted out an endorsement, saying: “While I’d hoped for a different outcome today, our goal remains the same. To make Angie Craig a one-term congresswoman!”
Cashin took a different approach, retweeting Winston Cavendish IV, an account on Twitter.
The tweet read, “Given this campaign’s personal attacks on fellow party candidates, misleading career claims and false statements relating to false claims of TS/Classified nature of a DD 214, this candidate will be chewed up and spit out by the Craig campaign before Memorial Day.”
Correction: This piece has been corrected to note that Tyler Kistner did release his DD214 form.