On Friday, roughly 2,200 Minnesota Republicans will assemble at their party’s state convention in St. Cloud to nominate a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Three men are vying for the nomination: Kurt Bills, a state representative from Rosemount; Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War veteran from Stillwater; and Dan Severson, a former state representative from Sauk Rapids. And according to several party insiders, the race is a dead heat.
To win the nomination, a candidate must get 60 percent of the delegates’ votes, and because two of the candidates entered the campaign late, no one is walking into the convention with the nomination guaranteed. If no one wins the nod at the convention, the candidates will face off in an August primary. But Jeff Johnson, national committeeman for Minnesota, tells NRO he thinks Bills, who’s been endorsed by Texas congressman Ron Paul, has a slight edge.
“The conventional wisdom is that Kurt has an edge because of the Ron Paul endorsement and the fact that [Paul’s supporters] are organized and [Bills is] an attractive candidate,” Johnson says.
Bills’s support for the gold standard and his skepticism toward aid for Israel have earned him the backing of the state’s Ron Paul movement. Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant who’s assisting Bills, estimates that the delegates affiliated with the Paul movement are 40 to 50 percent of the total. (Hegseth’s campaign puts the percentage in the mid to high 30s.)
Peppin is quick to add, however, that Bills appeals to all types of voters. A high-school economics teacher who entered the race on March 8, Bills speaks fluently on many issues. As a member of the teachers’ union, he appeals to that demographic, Peppin argues. And Bills has successfully run for office before, knocking out a Democratic state representative in 2010.
Peppin notes that Bills can get even young voters excited. At his school, the student body has repeatedly chosen Bills to be its commencement speaker. Bills’s ability to connect with younger voters, Peppin says, “certainly helps when trying to put together a coalition to compete with [incumbent Amy] Klobuchar.”
Hegseth, meanwhile, is running an energetic campaign, especially for a newcomer who entered the race only on March 1. He raised $160,000 in one month — more than Bills ($45,500) and Severson ($54,000) did combined in the first quarter. And he’s received a slew of endorsements, including those of Texas governor Rick Perry and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. “I think that Hegseth has a very unique background, and he is an exciting candidate for a lot of people,” Johnson observes.
Hegseth tells National Review Online, “I know the momentum is in our direction; we just need to capture it.” His appeal is twofold: “I’m a consistent conservative who believes in the three legs of the Republican stool” and “my background demonstrates I will have the courage of my convictions to stand up and fight for what’s right.”
The candidate says he plans to highlight the policy differences between Bills and himself in the run-up to the convention. Hegseth mentions his “support of Israel and how adamantly we should stand with our allies.” And on monetary policy, he says, “We should get rid of hidden inflation, but I don’t think it’s through a return to the gold standard.”
Finally, he argues he can beat Klobuchar. He points out that Severson has campaigned for over a year and yet hasn’t gained much traction in the polls. “Dan [Severson] was in this race a long time, but when we got in — whether it was The Weekly Standard or National Review or Politico or the Star Tribune — news outlets started covering the race because they felt here’s a campaign that can bring a challenge.”
Nonetheless, Severson remains a factor in the race. He’s been in the race since May 2011, and he’s been working delegates for many months.
“I don’t think you should count out Dan Severson,” says Pat Anderson, national committeewoman for Minnesota.
“He has a lot of supporters who are loyal to him. I don’t see them switching under any circumstances,” Johnson says.
Although his campaign received little attention from the media, Severson has gotten an eclectic mix of endorsements, including those of consultant Dick Morris and Herman Cain. (Severson supports Cain’s 9-9-9 plan as a transition to the FairTax.)
And he certainly won’t yield the Paul supporters to Bills. “I don’t think Kurt has a corner on the Ron Paul people,” Severson tells NRO. “I think we have a good number of Ron Paul people. I’ve got a number on my staff who are Ron Paul supporters.”
Severson, who ran for secretary of state in 2010, says he has experience running statewide, and that could give him an edge in the race against Klobuchar. “We’ve also been working on a reach-out to new Americans and minority groups that typically aren’t [targeted] by the Republican party,” he says. “We’ve been having good success at that — we have a new voter base to get us where we need to go to win the seat.”
With Bills, Hegseth, and Severson all running aggressive campaigns — and given the specialized electorate of convention delegates — it’s anyone guess who the nominee will be.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.