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Tom Emmer’s campaign manager is a non-traditional choice — and a non-traditional Republican

Those expecting the conservative GOP gubernatorial candidate to move toward the middle for the election are in for a surprise. Emmer is staying put — and underscored his beliefs by naming Rep. Mark Buesgens as his campaign manager.

The big question asked by political traditionalists is how Tom Emmer will move to the middle for the general election.

The answer has become increasingly clear: The Republican Party’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate won’t move. He’ll stay right where he is, at the center of the conservative movement.

Emmer underscored his own passionate political beliefs by naming Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, as his campaign manager.

Buesgens is not only a non-traditional choice to run a statewide campaign (he’s never done anything like that before) but is also a non-traditional Republican. He’s not so much right of center as he is an outspoken libertarian, who frequently does not attend House Republican caucus meetings because he doesn’t like the idea of “group think.”

As a state rep, Buesgens was pretty much a predictable “No!” vote on anything proposed by the DFL-controlled Legislature. Yet, as a libertarian, he would occasionally come up with a surprise vote.

Rep. Mark Buesgens
Rep. Mark Buesgens

For example, in the 2009 session, Buesgens voted for a bill that would have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. That bill passed in both the House and Senate but eventually was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. 

Before accepting this new post, Buesgens had served as a co-chairman of the Emmer campaign. But that’s an honorary position. His new job means that he’ll be the key, hands-on strategist in the coming months.

‘No longer the pretty face’
“I’m no longer just the pretty face,” said Buesgens, laughing. “That’s what a chairman is. The eye candy. Now, I’m the guy.”

Typically, major gubernatorial candidates seek out political insiders who are experienced in organizational politics and fundraising to act as campaign managers.

Statewide politics and big-money campaigning are as new to Buesgens as they are to Emmer.

“I complained to Tom that I’ve done more campaigning in the last eight months than I’ve done in the last eight years,” Buesgens said.

Since first winning office 12 years ago, Buesgens said he no longer has to spend much time campaigning in his home district.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said of his own races. “I’ve got great people helping me in what is a solidly Republican district. The organization in my district is just incredible.”

What Buesgens will bring to Emmer is almost-brotherly loyalty. He talked about the nervousness he felt prior to balloting at the Republican state convention when it was believed Emmer was locked in a tight battle with Marty Seifert.

Rep. Tom Emmer
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Rep. Tom Emmer

“It felt like the night of the big game,” said Buesgens, who years ago was a middle linebacker at Jordan High. “You’re laying it on the line for this one moment in time.”

Now that he’s campaign manager, that game-night feeling already is back, although election night is months away.

“I’m nervous as all get-out,” Buesgens said. “Tom is the real deal. If I can put him in front of 3.5 million people in this state and give them a chance to shake his hand, look him in the eye, they’ll see that. If we don’t win, it’s because I haven’t done my job.”

He also believes his experience as a lifelong math teacher will help the Emmer cause.

“I think my mathematics background should help,” Buesgens said. “You look at the swing votes, you look at the entire state, you look where you can touch the most people.”

He’ll also bring a willingness to listen, he said.

A new experience
Buesgens is the first to admit that he has no experience running anything like a statewide campaign.

“We start with good consultants, helping us lay it out,” Buesgens said. “A guy like Tom Mason [whose party roots date back to when he was an aide to Sen. Rudy Boschwitz] already has been indispensable. People are coming out of the woodwork, willing to help us, give us advice.”

In the end, though, it will be Emmer and Buesgens calling the shots.

“This portends the end of the status quo,” said Buesgens. “We weren’t brought up through the GOP systems.”

The man who managed Emmer’s win over Seifert for party endorsement, David FitzSimmons, a pig farmer by profession, has moved into the GOP staff ranks for the duration of the campaign and will focus on the races of the party’s constitutional offices.

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