Five years ago, Kurt Daudt had a fairly simple life. He was living on his family’s 62-acre farm in Crown, Minnesota, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. He worked at local car dealership and kept busy by being active in local politics.
It was so comfortable, in fact, that when he was initially approached to run for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives, he turned the offer down. Running for a seat in St. Paul meant he’d have to quit his day job at the dealership. It also meant he’d be away from his home for at least half of the year.
Daudt eventually changed his mind, and went on to win the seat in 2010. Now, entering just his third term, Daudt will take the rostrum as Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, after he helped engineer an 11-seat pick up on election day that put Republicans back into the majority.
When he’s sworn in as Speaker of the House, not only will the 41-year-old Daudt be the greenest legislator to serve in the role since the 1930s, he will be the most powerful negotiator Republicans have had at the table in years. Democrats have had complete control of state government since 2012, and they maintain dominance in the state Senate and the governor’s office, where DFLer Mark Dayton just won another term.
Over the next two years, the parties will have to strike a deal on everything from a two-year budget proposal and a bonding bill to a major transportation package, and Daudt will be in the driver’s seat representing Republican values across the state. It’s a role that’s both completely new to Daudt — and more than a little worrisome to some of the more seasoned and conservative Republicans in the state.
“I didn’t plan this,” Daudt said. “Never in a million years did I think I would be Speaker of the House.”
From Crown to St. Paul
Daudt was raised in Princeton, where he attended elementary and high school (and he was taught by now-Republican state Rep. Sondra Erickson) before moving across the border to study aviation management at the University of North Dakota.
But before he earned his degree, both of Daudt’s grandparents on his father’s side of the family died, leaving him their farm in Crown. Daudt moved to Crown and began renting out the tillable land to a neighbor, and he used his affinity for old cars to start a career in the business office of various car dealerships.
One of his earliest political inspirations also lived on a farm in Crown, just down the road from Daudt — former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams. “He was a mentor of mine,” Daudt said. “I’m friends with all his family. His mom still lives there and goes to church with us.”
After moving to Crown, Daudt wanted to get more involved in his community, so he decided to jump into local politics. At 25, he was elected to the Stanford Township Board, where he served for six years before moving up to serve on the Isanti County Board, where he stayed for another six years. At the same time, Daudt was also rising up in the ranks of the Republican Party of Minnesota, from 8th Congressional District Republican activist to eventually landing a seat on the state party’s executive council. He got his first taste of statewide politics as a volunteer to Grams 2000 re-election campaign.
At a pork chop fundraiser for Erickson, Daudt’s old teacher and a Republican House candidate, he met former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert. “I was always looking for candidates for things. I thought, he’s a bright guy and a county commissioner,” Seifert said. “We hit it off from than point on.”
In 2010, Seifert found himself in a tight race for the Republican Party’s endorsement with fellow House member Tom Emmer. Instead of pushing Daudt to run for office, Seifert recruited him to run the second leg of his gubernatorial campaign.
When Seifert lost the endorsement, he encouraged Daudt to run for the Minnesota House seat being vacated by Rep. Rob Eastlund, and quickly pivoted to help him win a competitive endorsement contest for the GOP’s backing. Daudt’s opponent in the endorsement fight: Chris Grams, the wife of his political mentor.
Daudt won both the endorsement and the general election and almost immediately established himself in St. Paul as a well-connected political newcomer. He was young but polished, and the other 32 members of his freshman class elected him to Republican leadership in the House, where they now held a majority. Two years later, when Republicans lost control of the House, Daudt was elevated to House minority leader.
‘I’m not bound by history’
Daudt was a fresh face for the party after suffering bruising losses in 2012, which many attributed to an unpopular constitutional amendment that sought to ban gay marriage. But his job as House minority leader came with few expectations — Republicans no longer held power in any branch of state government.
But Daudt said he used his lack of experience in St. Paul to take a different approach to the job. In particular, he points to the last night of the 2013 legislative session, when DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy were trying to pass a slew of major bills before the clock ran out.
Daudt had been prepping for the final day of session by watching videos of the House floor session from previous years. Staff was trying to prepare him to stall all action on the floor if Republicans needed to. “As I watched the videos, there was a common theme: Everybody gets mad, and the majority party always gets what it wants,” Daudt said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is stupid.’”
So Daudt pulled Murphy and Thissen into a back room and cut a deal: He was going to make a list of everything Republicans wanted before session ended, and he wanted them to make a list of everything they wanted to pass. Then they would sit down and cross things off both their lists until they had an agreement.
“They looked at me like I was from another planet,” Daudt said. But two hours later, they emerged with a deal that included an agreement from Thissen to not borrow over $1 billion for construction projects that biennium. Daudt stuck to the deal, and the session ended fairly quietly.
“I always say that piece of paper was worth $1 billion,” Daudt joked. “I’m not bound by history. I’m not locked into, we have to do it this way because we’ve always done it that way.”
“People had low expectations for a minority leader in a state where Republicans had a majority in nothing,” said retiring GOP Rep. Kelby Woodard, who was a roommate with Daudt their freshman year in the House. “For him to play a leadership role in that situation was impressive, and he didn’t create bad blood with anyone in the process.”
Daudt’s deal-cutting and collegial style has earned him a reputation for decentness among Democrats, who he will have to work with to pass numerous Republican priorities over the next two years: tax and regulatory reform, an overhaul to the state’s education system to close the racial achievement gap, as well as any number of priorities for rural Minnesota, where Republicans picked up 10 out of 11 seats this fall.
“On a personal level, I really like Kurt,” DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said. “He’s likeable, and I believe he’s genuine when he says he wants to find common ground with Democrats.”
Daudt’s biggest challenge might not be Democrats, though. It may be managing expectations within his own party. After two years with next to no power, Republicans have a long wish list, and his new GOP caucus is “diverse,” Martin said. “Ideologically and regionally, his new members span the spectrum. He is going to have to walk a fine tight rope, and I’m not convinced he will be able to do it at this point. The question is, will he lead his caucus or will his caucus lead him.”
Daudt faced a challenge from two more seasoned representatives in his caucus for the job of speaker, including GOP Rep. Matt Dean, a former House majority leader who ran to Daudt’s right, and GOP Rep. Rod Hamilton, a longtime rural representative. After a five hour meeting, Daudt emerged the victor in the contest.
“The bulk of our caucus elected Representative Daudt to be the Speaker,” said GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who supported Dean to become Speaker. “It’s up to all of us as members, including those of us who did not vote for him, to move us all in the same direction.”
The calls for unity within the caucus haven’t kept some members of the state’s Tea Party groups from raising red flags about Daudt. Jake Duesenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, said Daudt campaigned against more conservative candidates in several local endorsement contests this spring and summer, and his deal with Democrats to bond for $1 billion during the last biennium is seen as a prime example that he lacks the fiscal conservative values they want in a majority leader.
“The government should stop borrowing money,” Duesenberg said. “Why is he going to the table and saying we should start at $1 billion dollars? Why didn’t he go to the negotiating table with zero dollars. I don’t believe he’s going to do what people elected Republicans and him to do, which is champion fiscal responsibility.”
Sitting in his corner office in a building just down the road from the state Capitol, Daudt said he’ll have to work his way through his new role as Speaker day-by-day, much like he did when he first found himself in St. Paul.
Above his desk sits two pictures: One is of Ronald Reagan Reagan, the last Republican president to have real broad appeal among voters, he said, and one is of David Clough, the only governor of Minnesota to hail from Isanti County, where Daudt is from.
For now, Daudt says he isn’t picturing himself in the governor’s office, or any other office besides the one he occupies, for that matter. “I don’t think about what my next thing will be,” he said. “When people ask if you will run for governor, I say no, and I don’t think I will. Now, maybe I would consider it, but it’s not even in my head. I’ve always thought, just do a good job at what you are doing right now, and if there is an opportunity there you will be positioned for it.”