GOP U.S. Senate Primary: Abeler is underdog to well-funded McFadden
ST. PAUL — “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” read the title of a recent news release from U.S. Senate candidate Jim Abeler.
The longtime state lawmaker was quoting Mark Twain to make the point that the media have all but ceded the Aug. 12 Republican primary to his opponent, businessman Mike McFadden.
There are reasons they’ve done so.
McFadden, 49, of Sunfish Lake, trounced Abeler at the state convention in May on his way to winning party backing. He leads Abeler in fundraising by more than 25 to 1 and is backed by former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and other leading Republicans.
McFadden avoids talking about Abeler and is aiming all his firepower at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent.
“I don’t mention other Republican candidates. I’m running against Al Franken,” he said.
But to get to Franken, McFadden will have to get past a Republican field a week from Tuesday that includes Abeler along with lesser-funded candidates David Carlson of Woodbury, Patrick Munro of Princeton and Ole Savior of Minneapolis.
And Abeler has been pitching himself to voters as the candidate with qualifications and experience who’s being overshadowed by McFadden’s money.
Last week, he snagged the backing of Minnesota’s former Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, and he also has been endorsed by former GOP Gov. Al Quie.
McFadden’s business perspective
McFadden, a first-time candidate, describes himself as a nonpolitician whose years of investment banking experience have taught him what it takes to create economic growth.
Much of what he talks about is unshackling the energy industry, as he did when pressed for specifics last month during a stop at a New Prague coffee shop as part of his 87-county tour of the state.
“Every candidate says, ‘We’re going to get the economy going, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,’ ” said farmer Phil Meyer. “I’m just saying that I’ve heard this from all the candidates, from both sides.”
“I’m going to share with you some ideas, I mean very specific,” McFadden said. “Day one, I vote to pass the Keystone pipeline. We’ll have enough votes to override a presidential veto. Day two, we fast-track the permitting of the 24 liquefied natural gas plants … around this country that are in the process of being permitted.”
McFadden likes to say the U.S. is on the “doorstep” of energy independence for the first time since the 1960s. Low-cost energy means more money in people’s pockets and a boom in domestic manufacturing, he says.
He talks about the stifling effect of government regulation, using as Exhibit A the yearslong federal and state environmental review — currently pending — of PolyMet Mining Corp.’s proposed copper-nickel mine in Northeastern Minnesota.
“Business just wants certainty,” McFadden said, and the Iron Range needs jobs. “They’ve just lost another generation of young people that have left because there’s not (enough) jobs available, and that’s not fair. They deserve an answer.”
He advocates abolishing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a market-based system that provides coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. On immigration, he says he would first secure the borders and then implement a multistep path to citizenship. He says he will oppose any effort to change Social Security and Medicare benefits for those at or near retirement.
Campaigning in southern Minnesota last month on the day a Malaysian plane was shot down in Ukraine, he criticized President Barack Obama’s “lack of foreign policy.”
“You look at Benghazi, an ambassador was murdered and we didn’t do anything, and the world watched. And then the president drew a red line in the sand in Syria. They stepped over the red line. We didn’t do anything. The world watched. So I don’t think it should be a surprise as to what happened in the Ukraine, or what’s boiling over in the Middle East right now.”
McFadden and his wife have six children. He is on leave from his job as co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market, an investment banking firm.
Abeler cites experience
Abeler, 60, of Anoka, and his wife have five kids. To Abeler, McFadden is a nice guy who would make a great neighbor but has no capacity to be a U.S. senator.
“I’m sure he keeps his grass mowed and his cars washed and doesn’t have loud parties and has got a great family. That doesn’t mean he’d be good at what Washington has to offer,” Abeler said.
“It’s ironic that he’s playing the outsider. He’s actually become the insider,” Abeler said. “He’s already been wooed by the big money in Washington, the big powers in Washington.”
Abeler, whose campaign vehicle is a repurposed ambulance, is trying to make headway with voters as a combination regular guy and public policy whiz.
He’s been an Anoka chiropractor for 35 years and owns and manages three commercial properties. “I fix my own roofs, I patch the driveways,” he said.
Abeler also served 16 years in the state Legislature, focusing on health care and human services, and was part of the vanguard of Minnesota’s charter school movement, founding the PACT school in 1994.
“Remember, it’s your country,” he told a tent full of young people at the Sonshine Christian music festival in Willmar last month, mentioning the nation’s $17 trillion in debt that adults aren’t going to be paying back.
What will you do for me? a boy asks. I’ll try to keep your country intact for you and protect your freedoms, Abeler answers.
Can you fire Obama? He’ll be gone in two years, says Abeler, accepting a bottle of water from the boy on the way out.
Abeler opposes the Affordable Care Act and says his prescription for improving the immigration system involves securing the borders, using E-Verify and upholding the rule of law.
Under Obama, he says, the United States is “doing badly” in foreign affairs.
“Franken and President Obama have a similar approach. They kind of lag behind to see where the trend is, and then they boldly jump on board as the 97th guy,” Abeler said.
That said, “I’m not a nation builder. I’m not an invade-at-the-drop-of-a-hat. I believe Congress should authorize any military action.”
Abeler’s campaign had raised $143,000 and had $16,000 in cash on hand at the end of June. McFadden has brought in $4 million and has half of that in the bank.
Given McFadden’s advantages, how does Abeler imagine he could win?
“The path to victory is people believe that their vote will matter. Ventura wasn’t supposed to win. Paul Wellstone wasn’t supposed to win,” he said.
“What I’ve seen is the people who like my opponent are happy he has some money, and then they mention again he has resources, and by the way he has enough money to win the race. Those are the top three things they like about him. On me, they say, he’s got experience, people like him, he knows how to work with people, and he’s accomplished more than anybody else I know in government, and I’ve enjoyed working with him myself. That draws people in. Will it draw in 51 percent? I have no idea.”
Franken leads in polls
One of Abeler’s sons died three years ago, an experience he says deepened his religious faith and may have contributed to his decision to give up a safe state House seat and try for the U.S. Senate. “I’m less afraid — of trying to preserve my seat, my world. This is a kind of a go-for-broke choice.”
Asked why he’s running, McFadden says, “We have to do better.” Pressed for what motivates him to seek office, he says, “I think it’s the severity of the problems that the country’s facing.”
In particular, McFadden says, his involvement with the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis has shown him it’s possible to achieve better results with low-income, minority students at a lower cost than the public school system.
National political analyses tend to favor Franken for re-election. The first-term Democrat had $5 million in the bank at the end of June.
A KSTP/Survey USA poll in June found Franken had a 6-point lead over McFadden, 48 percent to 42 percent, and led Abeler by 9 points at 48 percent to 39 percent.
Another June poll, from Public Policy Polling, found Franken leading Abeler 50 percent to 39 percent and McFadden 49 percent to 38 percent.
Republican state Sen. Julie Rosen, who drove McFadden around Blue Earth in her convertible during his state tour this summer, said his lack of political experience won’t hurt him. Republicans in her area are “excited to see somebody with his qualifications,” she said. “He’s bringing a very nice, fresh approach to the Republican Party.”
As for Abeler, “he’s just got to go out, be himself, be real, tell people the truth and let the people make the decision for themselves,” said Savage chiropractor Wade Lofton, who’s supporting Abeler. “He’s up against the odds. He needs a miracle.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.