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

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.

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.

Emmer?

“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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/10/2010 - 10:36 am.

    Whatever. Are there any substantive differences between these guys?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/10/2010 - 11:09 am.

    I’m sure lefties are all praying (or whatever the leftist equivelent for praying is) for a big messy primary…but it ain’t gonna happen.

    I was one of the passionate Sullivan delegates in ’02 that were out there trash talking T-Paw before the endorsing convention that turned into passionate T-Paw advocates in the general election.

    There won’t be any private investigators being hired to dig dirt on opponents…not that there are many available anyway during a Democrat primary.

    This is inside baseball; things will get hot but not public and the result will be another great Republican Governor to keep the working families of Minnesota safe from the pocket picking party the left is dreaming of.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 03/10/2010 - 01:13 pm.

    //”It’s important that they maintain civility. It’s OK to disagree and contrast each others records in a factual way because it’s important for the delegates to know the differences.”//

    The point that Mr. Sutton makes could well apply to all elections and to politics in general. Just imagine if that were the benchmark for the general election this fall.

    In that spirit, I have to question the “passionate Sullivan delegate” who often uses terms that always exceed the dictionary and those words will always eventually adopt its popular misunderstanding.

    My (perhaps overly dramatic) opposition to the words “socialist”, “leftist”, “liberal”, etc. by the more right-minded of the commenters here is that we’re generally talking about relatively serious ideas, with the occasional bon mot tossed in for good measure.

    Intentionally using language that is not commonly understood by all participants of the conversation makes for chaos rather than understanding. Perhaps it’s more dramatic? Artistic? Certainly more inflammatory and angry.

    I’m not looking for anyone to adopt the intellectual framework of “the other side”, as such, where “socialist” means “anywhere to the left of me” and “fascist” means “anywhere to the right of me”.

    But I should think that reasonable people could agree to use terms with commonly understood meanings. After all, aside from the odd haiku, none of us is here to write poetry or stretch the boundaries of the English language. At least I don’t think so.

  4. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 03/10/2010 - 04:18 pm.

    Thomas Swift, it appears your pre-endorsement assessment of Pawlenty was correct.

    I chuckled when I read that Seifert claims his temperament is more like Pawlenty. Great…8 more years of stalemate, special sessions, chaos, self-righteous smirks and a further drop down the list of all socio-economic indicators for MN.

  5. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/10/2010 - 06:19 pm.

    I think for some misunderstood and un deertood individuals “socialist” “leftist” and liberal is for anyone who accepts a mixed economy which is probably 99% of the economists in the world. Well we always had Romania for a while, sigh.

  6. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 03/10/2010 - 07:21 pm.

    A “government takeover of elections”? Is that a joke?

  7. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/10/2010 - 08:32 pm.

    If I recall correctly the republicans had an excellent candidate in 1990 by the name of Jon Grunseth and there was no dirt to dig up on him. Shame on the press a man has the right to do whatever he wants in the privacy of his backyard swimming pool.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/11/2010 - 09:10 am.

    “Great…8 more years of stalemate, special sessions, chaos, self-righteous smirks and a further drop down the list of all socio-economic indicators for MN.”

    Don’t panic, Chuck.

    If the pundits are anywhere near correct there will be a GOP majority in the legislature as well as in the Governor’s office….a smirkless, chaos free four years.

  9. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/11/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    After having spent some time at the two candidates’ webstites, I can only echo Paul Udstrand: what are the differences between Seifert and Emmer? Neither, apparently, has any qualms about promising things he (knows or should know) can’t be delivered.

    In Seifert’s case, for example, it’s the promise to limit welfare benefits for newcomers to Minnesota to those they would have received in their state of origin. The U.S. Supreme Court has said on more than one occasion that states may not so discriminate. Seifert has been told this by state legal staff, yet it continues to be a staple in his pitch to the public.

    Emmner, on the other hand, targets gun owners with his claim of having offered “the Firearms Freedom Act, which exempts the state from any federal rules or regulations regarding firearms, ammunition, or firearms accessories that are manufactured and retained in Minnesota.” (http://emmerforgovernor.com/issues/secondamendment/) As a lawyer, he presumably knows better than to suggest that any state can unilaterally exempt itself from federal laws.

    Neither is specific at this point about how he would accomplish his objectives. They owe Republicans some idea of those specifics before the convention.

  10. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/11/2010 - 04:13 pm.

    Mr. Swift’s swat at liberal prayer is a good example of the mindset that so pollutes political discussion today. While I’m neither liberal nor religious, as I understand the terms, I do know many devout church-going Christians who happily identify themselves as liberals and, no doubt, use many of the same prayers as Mr. Swift implies he does.

    While it’s convenient to assume that one’s opponents are all of a kind, it’s rarely the case, be they from the right, left or center.

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