By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
One task before Republicans gathering in St. Cloud for their State Convention this weekend is endorsing a candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Three Republican candidates are vying to take on the Democrat: Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount, former state Rep. Dan Severson of Sauk Rapids, and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Pete Hegseth of Stillwater. Hegseth is a former Forest Lake resident.
Bills, 42, teaches economics and government at Rosemount High School and was elected to the House in 2010 by defeating a first-term Democrat, winning about 58 percent of the vote. Bills and his wife Cindy have four children, and operate a home daycare.
Politically, Bills has ties to the Ron Paul presidential campaign.
He has stood in as a Paul surrogate, introduced the Texas congressman at rallies, and has been endorsed by Paul who is expected to speak at the state convention following the U.S. Senate endorsement contest on Friday, May 18.
His rivals for endorsement view the Ron Paul connection as an important factor in the endorsement.
Bills, at a recent Republican U.S. Senate debate in Inver Grove Heights, expressed a degree of resentment at the suggestion he walked lockstep with Paul. “I’m a Kurt Bills Republican,” he said.
Bills depicts himself as offering a compelling, personal story.
Raised in a blue-collar home, he worked construction as a young man to pay for college and has been a card-carrying union member since the age of 18, he explains. Still, Bills views unions as monopolies and supported the so-call Right-to-Work amendment.
But he speaks of the Republican Party needing to be a party of addition, not subtraction. He promotes a “big tent ideology,” one offering political sustenance to union members, college students, others.
One of Bills’ campaign issues is monetary policy. He introduced legislation in the House designating that gold and silver coins be legal tender in the state of Minnesota.
Like his endorsement rivals, Bills depicts federal spending as running amok.
He cites the dismay of his high school students in learning about the massive federal debt awaiting them as part of his motivation for running for the U.S. Senate.
“These kids are literally scared,” he said. He wants to change that, Bills explains.
Bills beckons to his classroom experience in campaign speeches, speaking of “bringing Economics 101 to Washington” and saying teaching was like campaign door knocking in reverse.
The Bills campaign did not return phone calls for comment for this story.
Hegseth announced his candidacy for Senate in March, shortly after the 31-year-old captain returned from deployment with the Minnesota National Guard in Afghanistan.
A Princeton University graduate, Hegseth served as a combat platoon leader with the 101st Airborne in Iraq and as a civil military operations officer. During his Afghanistan deployment, he was an instructor at a counterinsurgency training center in Kabul, according to the candidate.
He is the recipient of two bronze stars for his military service.
Hegseth has gained national attention in the role of executive director for Vets for Freedom, an organization 95,000-members strong, and has appeared on cable television networks such as MSNBC.
He understands that he is young to be a U.S. Senator, Hegseth said, but quips that some people in their 50s simply don’t have good ideas.
Hegseth is married to wife Samantha and the couple have a young son, Gunner.
He has noted that he is a divorcee, saying he wanted to make that known out of fairness towards his former wife.
Hegseth campaign has links to Republican 8th Congressional District Congressman Chip Cravaack, using former staffers for the congressman who engineered the upset victory against former Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar.
“I feel very good where we are,” Hegseth said recently about the status of his campaign. They have made good use of the weeks since he declared his candidacy, he explained.
“We knew it would be a fight,” Hegseth said of winning the endorsement.
As for the Ron Paul supporters, it’s a dedicated group, Hegseth said The Bills’ and Ron Paul campaigns have “completely merged,” he said.
But Hegseth argues that while the perceived blending of the campaigns carries weight, it’s not overwhelming. Indeed, he believes that he can pick up support from Ron Paul supporters.
At the Inver Grove Heights debate, Hegseth argued the Republican U.S. Senate campaign message needed a sharp focus. Issues like monetary policy could not provide such a focus, he suggested.
Severson is a retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot who logged more than 300 carrier landings, flying the F/A-18 Hornet and A-7E jet fighters.
He served four terms in the House.
In 2010 Severson challenged Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, losing the statewide contest with about 46 percent of the vote.
Severson, 57, whose nickname is “Doc,” and his wife Cathy Jo have two children.
The retired Navy commander was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal.
Severson enjoys flying anything capable of flight, he once said.
“I think we’ve done the work we need to do,” Severson said of preparing for the convention.
“But you never know until the first vote.”
Like Hegseth, Severson believes the Ron Paul contingent at the convention will be a force.
“I think it will be a huge factor,” he said. “I think they probably tend to lean, if they’re Ron Paul supporters, probably lean towards Bills.”
Not that he, too, can’t win some of this support, he said.
One of the themes of Severson’s campaign is bringing the growing number of minorities in Minnesota into the Republican fold.
Carleton College Political Science Professor Steven Schier foresees the Republican U.S. Senate candidate facing an uphill struggle in defeating Klobuchar.
It will be a popular, well-financed Democratic candidate running against a poorly known, under-financed Republican candidate, he argued.
“End of story,” Schier said.
Yes, two proposed constitutional amendments are on the November ballot and it’s a presidential election year. But Schier suggested these dynamics will be a wash.
“I just don’t think lightning will strike in Minnesota,” he said. And it’s certainly not likely that lightning will strike Amy Klobochar, Schier said.
All three Republican candidates have indicated that they would abide by the endorsement.