When financial advisor and political newcomer Mike McFadden first walked onto the stage at the Minnesota Republican Party’s convention in Rochester Friday afternoon, things looked grim for his campaign. Within moments of his appearance in front of more than 2,000 delegates gathered there, someone yelled from the audience, “Abide by the endorsement!”
He thanked the spectator for their comment, and moments later, another: “Respect the endorsement!”
But nearly 12 hours later, after 10 rounds of balloting and a brief break to give delegates rest from the voting, McFadden took the stage as the party’s endorsed candidate in the U.S. Senate race — greatly aided by Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has always championed abiding.
The endorsement is a rare blessing given to outsiders in Republican politics, especially a candidate who said from the start he would move on to an August primary election. McFadden, of Sunfish Lake, has taken a leave of absence as co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market based in Minneapolis.
He beat out five other candidates, including initial vote front-runner and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg and state Sen. Julianne Ortman. He will almost certainly now face incumbent U.S. Sen. Al Franken in the November general election, though candidate and state Rep. Jim Abeler has not yet promised to abide by the endorsing process.
McFadden’s win means the relative unknown can hoard more of his multi-million-dollar war chest against Franken, who right now has even more cash-on-hand. But DFLers were already trying to exact the price of that win — Bachmann’s endorsement — to define McFadden as ideologically extreme.
“It’s only the end of the beginning,” a hoarse and visibly exhausted McFadden told the crowd of activists Saturday afternoon after winning the endorsement.
The ‘resources’ to win
His victory reflects changing attitudes within activist ranks regarding the GOP endorsement process in Minnesota, which produced two candidates in 2010 and 2012 — gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer and U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills — who vastly underperformed expectations.
But there was more than that to McFadden’s victory Saturday. In the governor’s endorsing contest, which immediately followed the Senate race, former Speaker Kurt Zellers and businessman Scott Honour didn’t even seek the endorsement after telling activists they planned to run in a primary. Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who also refused to abide by the endorsement, did seek the blessing of activists but walked out of the convention with low vote totals and drew the ire of party leadership when he reportedly tried to block anyone from getting the endorsement.
Despite not promising to abide, McFadden pumped considerable resources into winning the endorsement — outside of the impressive firecrackers and streamers he launched off after his first speech to activists. His campaign put out thousands of calls to potential delegates ahead of the contest, campaign staff said.
Fundraising also became a critical factor for some activists, while not playing a major role in the governor’s race. That’s because Franken currently has more than $6 million in his campaign war chest, far more than DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. With the Republican Party of Minnesota still roughly $1.1 million in debt, McFadden touted his ability to raise cash for his race.
He has about $1.8 million on hand for his campaign, while his closest challenger for the endorsement, Dahlberg, had just $39,000 on hand as of the last reporting period. “We need to have the resources to [beat Franken], and I’ve proven I can do that,” he said.
He also benefited from a contest in which many activists’ walked into the convention undecided in the race. That was evident after the first ballot when candidate Phillip Parrish — an intelligence specialist in the U.S. Navy Reserve with little profile in the party and no campaign operation to speak of — managed to gather 16 percent of the vote after delivering a rousing, red-meat conservative speech to delegates.
Many voters flocked to his campaign after being unimpressed by the top candidate speeches. Dahlberg led on the first ballot, much to everyone’s surprise, while McFadden and Ortman came in a close second and third. Ortman was the favorite to earn the endorsement after winning a straw poll of activists back in October.
“I think a lot of people walked in here today not knowing who they were going to support,” said GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who predicted a strong initial showing from Dahlberg.
A protracted battle
Dahlberg gave the most conservative opening speech to delegates, taking a jab at McFadden’s former position on Second Amendment rights. “I’m a little troubled when we have candidates in this race who say we need more background checks,” Dahlberg said, referring to a position McFadden once held.
But after the first few ballots, Ortman trained her fire on Dahlberg, passing out lit pieces that questioned the accuracy of several of his claims to delegates. McFadden went relatively unscathed and handed out flyers touting a growing number of endorsements from legislative Republicans. By the fifth round of balloting, Ortman was barely dropped from the contest, failing to get at least 20 percent support.
With no movement between Dahlberg, in the lead, and McFadden, activists opted to recess at 2 a.m. and pick the contest up in the early morning Saturday.
When activists reconvened the next day, McFadden quickly released a flyer featuring his photo next to Bachmann’s, who had thrown her support behind his campaign. (You can read more about the machinations here.) She still holds considerable sway with the conservative ranks of the party. He also gave one final speech to delegates, delivering on some of the red meat activists wanted, calling himself staunchly pro-life and pledging to defend the right to bear arms.
On the ninth ballot, McFadden pulled ahead of Dahlberg 53 to 45 percent of support. A tenth ballot was submitted and tallied, but Dahlberg withdrew from the race before the results were revealed.
“Together, all of us in this room as a team, will fight and we will win,” Dahlberg said. “In November, we will beat Al Franken.”
DFL training fire
McFadden’s next big challenge is beating a well-funded Franken and attacks from the DFL Party of Minnesota.
The DFL has been focusing on McFadden for months, criticizing him for not showing up to GOP candidate forums and avoiding taking positions on many policies. Many observers felt McFadden didn’t want to be put in the position to move too far to the right to get the endorsement and then have it used against him in a statewide campaign against Franken.
DFLers, via Bachmann, are already saying he did.
In a memo to reporters after McFadden’s endorsement, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin described his victory as by “the skin of his teeth and only with an endorsement from Tea-Party extremist Michele Bachmann — running on a platform of touting his ability to raise money, and policy positions that would continue to hurt Minnesota families masked in platitudes and poll-tested talking points.”
The Democrats are also drawing parallels between McFadden and a dysfunctional Congress, touting his ties to the GOP establishment in Washington. Former Republican Minnesota U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman was one of the early backers of his campaign.
“McFadden says we’ve ‘created a professional class of politicians, and it is killing us,’” Martin wrote. “Yet he’s spent his entire campaign touting endorsements from entrenched Republicans in Washington like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker John Boehner.”
– Cyndy Brucato contributed reporting to this story