Kurt Bills’ Senate campaign needed a jolt of energy, and it got it from the eldest statesman of the Republican old guard.
Eighty-eight-year-old former Gov. Al Quie is now a Bills campaign adviser, and not just in title. Quie was on his way to one of his multiple meetings at the campaign office in Bloomington when he told me how he overcame reservations about Bills’ libertarian politics.
“I sat down with him and I like him as a person,” he said.
Quie’s interest was piqued at the Republican state convention last month, where he served as a delegate and where Bills received the Republican endorsement. “I listened to the three candidates [seeking the endorsement], and I just like what he said about his economics approach because our biggest problem is that our country may go broke if we don’t make changes,” he said.
Not that Quie’s participation was an easy sell given Bills association with former presidential candidate Ron Paul. The former governor recalls the conversation: “‘You’re a Ron Paul person,’ and I told him what I thought of Ron Paul. I asked him, ‘If you’re elected would you vote like Ron Paul?’ And he said, ‘No I will vote my principles.’”
Quie was voicing similar concerns of other Republicans, both critical and suspicious of the Paul supporters who commandeered the state convention and took all but one of the delegate slots to the Republican national convention in August.
“A lot of people have been wondering why the Bills campaign hasn’t pivoted from endorsement to a statewide race where you seek moderate Democrats and independents,” said John Gilmore, St. Paul attorney and activist whose Twitter account and blog is filled with unkind words about the Paulites. “Maybe Al Quie is a sign that he is in the process of that.”
Quie certainly fits the description of the ideal adviser that campaign manager Mike Osskopp envisions. “We want to surround him on his kitchen cabinet with people who have been to war before, people who have campaign experience, people who have been in battle,” Osskopp said.
Osskopp said that Quie represents the diversity of Republicans the campaign hopes to attract. And although critics like Gilmore say the campaign still resides in an ideological cul-de-sac, Quie has earned some independent stripes, notably his endorsement of Independence Party candidate for governor, Tom Horner.
Quie has offered advice from the battle scene: the candidate must deliver his message and not let the media change the subject.“To beat [incumbent Sen. Amy] Klobuchar, he needs to just stay with the three things he wants to talk about,” he said. “Once the press gets a hold of it they say that it’s old news, but the public needs to hear what are the three most important things.”
And those are? According to Quie, education, the economy and the role of government in the private sector should dominate the conversations that Bills has with voters. And of those, the most important, Quie says, is education. “Just plain look at the biggest crime we are committing – the children who do not achieve in school,” he said. “The only way it can be solved is locally, so how can you run federal programs so locals systems can achieve responsibility?”
So far, Bills has limited his discussion on education to his profession. “They like the public school teacher thing,” he said. “When I walk in parades and I’m down the street and I say, ‘I’m Kurt Bills and I teach at Rosemount high school,’ as soon as they hear ‘teacher,’ they go from kind of stiff to oh, a yeah, a teacher.”
Quie concurs: “It’s such an asset that he’s a public school teacher. Education is of utmost importance.”
From this point, however, the former governor and the candidate have a long way to go. Bills has not articulated a specific education policy and education isn’t even listed as an issue on his campaign website.
The sketchy details of Bills’ policy positions are among several concerns that some Republicans have voiced about the campaign. Bills starts in the hole on name-recognition, neither a time-tested public servant nor a candidate whose service through the ranks of party structure has proven his loyalty.
Mastery of policy is another hurdle. Republicans want a candidate who will challenge Klobuchar on her positions and force her to defend her record.
The worst fear, though, is a campaign that echoes the early days of Tom Emmer’s campaign for governor, with its embarrassing gaffes and infighting.
So, regardless of the value of Quie’s political and policy counsel, his mere presence and his willingness to support Bills may quell the concerns of some skeptics. Quie supplies the name, breadth of experience, and the gravitas the campaign is looking for.
Quie says, strategically, he has advised “details and directness.”
As a campaign veteran, he’s realistic. “The question is, do you listen to your advisers?” he acknowledges.
If that answer is yes, then the old dog will be able to teach the young pup some essential new tricks.