Caucus election teams scrambling for an edge

by Briana Bierschbach
Published: August 18th, 2010

Dems play defense, Republicans offense in season of expected midterm backlash

For as long as Republican state Sen. Amy Koch has been alive, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has held control of the state Senate. The 39-year-old Republican senator from Buffalo – who is heading into her first cycle running elections for the Senate GOP caucus – thinks the tide may finally turn this year.

“I think that the majority is within reach,” Koch said by phone from Delano, where she was in the middle of a lit-drop for GOP candidate Joe McDonald. “I think there is going to be a pretty big shift, if not the biggest shift ever.”

Longtime GOP activist Gregg Peppin of P2B Strategies said the veto-proof 46-21 DFL Senate majority is primed for a flip, and that Koch’s efforts are one big reason.

“She is a recruiter, a cheerleader, a motivator and even leader when she needs to be with these candidates,” he said. “She is absolutely tireless in these efforts.”

Koch isn’t the only one who’s hitting election efforts with fervor. The Senate DFL caucus and both parties’ House caucuses have put their point people to work, recruiting candidates and selling them to as many voters as possible in the months remaining before the general election.

Taking the Senate

Koch is teamed up with political consultant Ben Golnik of Golnik Strategies to handle Senate GOP elections this year. Golnik only recently joined the Senate election team after caucus chief of staff Cullen Sheehan left to become campaign manager for party nominee Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial bid.

Golnik said he is excited to be working with the caucus in a year where Republicans are likely to grab seats “up and down the ticket.” Golnik served as executive director of the Republican Party of Minnesota from 2005 until 2007, and worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. He started his own firm in 2007, and has since worked on House GOP elections and the failed gubernatorial campaign of former House Minority Leader Rep. Marty Seifert.

Koch and Golnik have a tough DFL match-up in Mike Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis. Kennedy has been with the Senate DFL caucus for more than a decade, working full-time to raise money and elect Democrats to the body.

Since senators usually face elections every four years (they serve two-year terms once a decade due to redistricting), Kennedy spends his time between cycles raising money for DFL candidates. When election season ramps up, he adds recruiting candidates, managing campaigns and targeting voters to the list.

Pogemiller has been aggressively hitting the campaign trail as well, getting out personally to many districts to knock on doors and making calls on behalf of incumbent senators, Senate DFL spokesman Gary Hill said.

Many Republican analysts see higher hopes of capturing a majority in the Senate than in the House. But Kennedy said he is confident the Senate DFL will retain a majority after November, despite dissatisfaction with the Obama White House and Democrats in Congress.

“There is no question that Democrats are running uphill this year, but the hill got a little less steep in the last few weeks,” Kennedy said. “I’m not convinced that the Tea Party and voter anger are going to be a huge factor. That’s certainly not what our local candidates are finding at the doors.”

Wind at their backs

In 2008, state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, watched his then 24-year-old legislative assistant, Tara Mack, challenge DFL incumbent Shelley Madore in House District 37A. Dean said he saw Mack all the way through the process, from her initial urge to jump into the race to her ultimate 1,000-vote victory.

Now, he is overseeing elections on a much larger scale, taking on his first cycle as the leader of House GOP caucus election efforts. He is assisted by Ian Marsh, the part-time political director for the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) who helps raise funds and manage campaigns.

Retaking the House for Republicans is no small endeavor. DFLers currently hold an 87-47 majority in the chamber. But the House has proven to be a tumultuous body. It was only four years ago that Republicans lost the speaker’s gavel. Dean thinks Republicans will have more than 60 members after the general election, and possibly as many as 78. (They would need 68 total seats to assume majority status.)

“Since 2004, the wind has been in our face. Now the wind is definitely at our backs, and it’s a welcome change,” Dean said. “We don’t know exactly how many seats we will pick up, but we have our candidates keep their heads down and work as hard as they can, no matter what.”

Dean says that with the help of Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, this year’s candidate-recruitment process was a major success. The caucus managed to win over top-tier candidates that it has courted for a long time, he said. While Dean declined to specifically name those candidates, he said they include mayors, council members, county commissioners and influential members of the business community.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm is running the House DFL’s election team. Handling day-to-day operations for the caucus is Sean Rahn, who took a leave from his position as legislative director for departing House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher to work full-time on campaigns.

Sertich, like the Senate DFLers, expresses confidence that the DFL will stay in power after November. Their caucus campaign model is the same one Kelliher crafted as House Speaker. That means heavy door-knocking, a strong field game and talking about “bread and butter issues,” Sertich said.

Sertich said the wide-open governor’s race, coupled with the absence of presidential or U.S. Senate contests, will make the state’s 2010 elections hyper-local, an advantage for House DFLers.

“I don’t think our election in Minnesota is going to be nationalized,” Sertich said. “It’s really going to be focused on state issues, and whether you’re talking about education, health care, jobs or the economy, that’s where our members really excel.”