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Contentious GOP gubernatorial race may be bending, if not breaking, Reagan’s ’11th commandment’

The close race for endorsement between Reps. Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer is prompting strong words from them and their campaigns.

Marty Seifert
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Rep. Marty Seifert, locked in a close race, has stepped up his criticism of his chief opponent, Rep. Tom Emmer, who fired back.

Update: This story now includes information from this morning’s Marty Seifert news conference.

Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment may not be broken yet, but it’s getting bent in the Republican scramble for gubernatorial endorsement.

Reagan uttered his famous commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — during his 1966 campaign for governor of California.

Switch to today in Minnesota, where two state reps, Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer, are battling in an extremely tight race for winning the hearts, minds and votes of delegates to the party’s state convention.

On Monday, Seifert’s website put up this headline: “Seifert Blasts Emmer Scheme to Stifle Free Speech.”

The story that followed was reported things Seifert had said at a debate sponsored by the Freedom Club State Political Action Committee regarding a 2006 bill that Emmer had sponsored. The bill would have restricted the amounts individuals could contribute to political action committees and also required that those making contributions be identified.

Dueling websites
“This is essentially a government takeover of elections bill,” the Seifert website quoted the former House minority leader from Marshall as saying. “Just like everything we see in Washington these days — a massive increase in government regulation.”

Rep. Tom Emmer
Rep. Tom Emmer

Emmer, on his website, quickly countered with a new feature, under the headline: “Enough Negativity, Know the Truth.” The Delano representative said that the site will be used for the duration of the campaign to “set the record straight” about things being said about his record.

He said he is not seeking a “government takeover of elections,” and then he started raising questions about some of the “misrepresentations” and “outright lies” from the Seifert camp.

There have been strong words between the candidates — and their surrogates — before. But these website comments seem stronger and more passionate, not surprising given the closeness of the race the two are waging.

DFLers, for the most part, have seemed to run a gentler race to date. There were some bitter complaints when it appeared to some of the candidates that House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher was getting favored treatment from the DFL over the use of a voter list. But her deal with the party was found to be a violation of campaign rules, and the moments of anger have fallen beneath the surface.

Crowded DFL field calms the waters a bit
The main reason for the relative tranquility of the DFL race is that so many candidates remain.

According to Republican National Committee member Brian Sullivan, who was involved in a tight, often emotional race for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement against Tim Pawlenty in 2002, it’s very risky to turn negative in a multi-candidate race.

Brian Sullivan
Brian Sullivan

“It’s a funny dynamic,” said Sullivan of endorsement races involving several candidates. “If you start attacking, nobody knows how it shakes out.”

Are Emmer and Seifert violating the spirit of the 11th Commandment?

Sullivan, who has endorsed Emmer, doesn’t think so — yet. In fact, he says, not even Reagan believed that the 11th Commandment meant that you could never attack your Republican opponent.

“Remember, he ran against an incumbent president [Gerald Ford] in 1976,” Sullivan said. “He was tough on Ford’s polices, very tough. But he was not tough about the man. Reagan understood that the debate was about the issues.”

Sullivan says that in many ways the endorsement/primary races are tougher, more personal, than general elections. That’s because, philosophically, so little separates the candidates.

It took 12 ballots and 17 hours at the 2002 Republican convention before Pawlenty was able to edge out Sullivan.

Leading up to the convention, Sullivan said that he and Pawlenty “banged each other hard.”

“I focused on the differences of our experiences,” said Sullivan. “I had my background in starting a business; he had his background in the Legislature. I was vocal about that and thought it was fair game. Pawlenty turned it on me and said, ‘We need experience.’ “

The tone of his voice shows that Sullivan still can feel some of the sting of having lost.

Two-candidate internal races seem tougher
“It’s a tough game,” he said. “The challenging thing about two-person races is they get to be a personality contest. People start asking about style, not substance. Primaries and endorsements are the worst because there’s not much difference on policy.”

Sullivan thinks Seifert has pushed a little harder on the “style issues, making references to Emmer’s temperament. But I haven’t seen character attacks.”

Emmer, it should be noted, is believed by some to have a temper.

But that temper, which has flashed on floor speeches, is about dramatic effect, not lack of control, Emmer supporters say.

But back to that 11th Commandment. Are Emmer and Seifert playing by the Reagan rule?

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

“It’s the tonality that matters,” said Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party. “It’s important that they maintain civility. It’s OK to disagree and contrast each other’s records in a factual way because it’s important for the delegates to know the differences. But it needs to be done at a civil level, and this is where it gets dicey. One person’s thoughtful critique is another person’s vicious attack.”

Sutton figures he’ll be the arbiter of what’s OK and what’s a commandment violation.

“My role is going to be interesting in these next 45 or 50 days,” he said. “I’m going to need to be the referee.”

Sutton said that at this point, he doesn’t believe the commandment has been broken. If the tone gets too tough, too negative, he said he’d first make a phone call.

“The first thing I’d do is make a private call [to the offending candidate],” he said. “I could imagine myself saying, ‘Maybe you should dial it down a notch. Maybe you can say the same thing, but say it differently.’ “

GOP chairman ready to keep candidates in line
What if that doesn’t work?

“If it gets out of control, you send a letter to the candidate, with a copy sent to the activists,” he said.

But Sutton said he believes the two candidates will police themselves, despite the intensity of their race. They understand that in intra-party competition, activists will not judge mudslingers kindly.

“It’s important to make contrasts, but activists will judge a person harshly if he’s seen as too negative.”

Added Sullivan, “It’s like the marketplace. If you bang your competitor too hard, it can boomerang on you.”

Steven Schier, Carleton College political science professor, adds this about the person who is seen as the attacker:

“If you’re seen as being negative in a two-person race in your own party, it’s a sign of weakness,” Schier said. “You’re doing it because you have to.”

Schier is following the gubernatorial races from afar because he currently is teaching a political science course to Carleton students in Washington. He cited Dick Morris, a political strategist who has worked for both Republican and Democrats, on the whole area of attack politics:

“Dick Morris said, ‘I’d rather be the rebutter than the first attacker.’ ”

The Emmer campaign claims it has been the rebutter throughout the campaign. And David Fitzsimmons, the Emmer campaign manager, says the negativity from the Seifert campaign has been increasing as the race has tightened. At Senate district conventions last weekend, Fitzsimmons said, almost all of the Seifert campaign literature was anti-Emmer in nature.

“They have been escalating,” Fitzsimmons. “Each week it seems like they’re ratcheting up. … What I find interesting about their attacks is that one moment they portray Tom as a moderate, a RINO [Republican in name only] and the next, as some sort of right-wing extremist.”

The Emmer team is a little miffed about the “temperament” attacks because, they say, Emmer was playing a role that Seifert wanted him to play when Seifert was the House minority leader and Emmer was one of his lieutenants.

“When you’re on the team in the Legislature, you have different roles,” said Fitzsimmons. “Tom’s role was to be the controlled-passion guy. To afterward call into question temperament strikes me as pretty unfair.”

At a news conference this morning, when Seifert introduced his newest supporter, Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, the word “temperament’’ was tossed around, too.

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Senjem was the first to use it, saying he liked both candidates but believes that Seifert has the right “temperament’’ to do the job.

What does that mean?

Senjem said that he worked closely with him when Seifert was house minority leader and in long end-of-session negotiating sessions, when he saw him as a patient negotiator.


“I don’t think he doesn’t have the temperament,’’ Senjem said. “But I haven’t had the chance to see that.’’

Asked about the word temperament and its introduction into the campaign, Seifert said, “Mine is more like Gov. Pawlenty’s. … I think, as David pointed out, these negotiations are long and tense. You have to be able to exercise patience.’’

There was a pause and then he said: “I don’t want you to read too much into this.’’

The Senjem endorsement is important, Seifert said, because the Senate leader is known throughout the state and he is a delegate from Olmstead County, which will send the second-largest delegation, 57 delegates, to the convention. Emmer’s home base, Wright County, will have the largest delegation, 59.

In Schier’s eyes and those of other political observers, Seifert has seemed to be more of the attacker, which fits with the general belief that, for the moment, Emmer has momentum on his side.

But this will remain a competitive race all the way to the convention floor.

“It’s going to stay close, and it’s going to heat up,” Sutton predicted.

It is the heat among Republicans that could be their biggest obstacle to success in November, Schier said.

“This is a year it appears that Republicans could do fairly well,” he said. “But here you have two relatively obscure candidates. Neither seems to have an attractive personality. If they start carving each other up, how does that work out?”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.