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Dahlberg travels the state in underdog Senate run

Chris Dahlberg (right) talks with Gil Harries at a recent fundraiser in Duluth. Dahlberg is among a crowded Republican field to challenge U.S. Sen. Al Franken. (Steve Kuchera / / 2
Chris Dahlberg visits with Therese Vaughn of Duluth at a recent fundraiser event for Dahlberg’s U.S. Senate campaign at Black Woods Grill & Bar in Duluth. Dahlberg hopes to win the Republican endorsement to challenge incumbent Democrat Al Franken. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

Chris Dahlberg says he can gain the support of millions of Minnesotans who want a change in leadership in Washington — common folks from Luverne to Lutsen willing to vote for him instead of Al Franken for U.S. Senate come November.

But first, Dahlberg is desperately seeking the support of 2,200 Republican delegates who will pick their Senate candidate at the party’s state convention in Rochester at the end of May.

Dahlberg, a Duluth attorney and St. Louis County commissioner, announced in late September that he is running in the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Minnesota for the seat now held by DFLer Franken.

Dahlberg faces six other Republicans in the race, including state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, St. Paul businessman Mike McFadden and state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka.

David Carlson, a former U.S. Marine who also ran in 2012, announced last month that he’ll run in the Aug. 12 Republican primary. Former Army chaplain Harold Shudlick and bison farmer Monti Moreno also are in the race.

“I’m the only candidate in the race from greater Minnesota. I’m the only one with a close connection to local politics, being on the county board. … I think I’m the best grass-roots candidate out there,” Dahlberg said.

“I looked around at the field (last autumn) and said, ‘Why not?’ I think I can beat Franken. I think I can win,” he said. “Why should we let kingmakers in Washington decide who can run for the Senate?”

Not only is the field crowded, but Dahlberg is not exactly a household name across the state. It’s been a long road, literally, for the Duluth native just to get his name out there.

Since entering the race in September, Dahlberg has logged more than 15,000 miles of miles on his GMC pickup driving between coffee shops, local party meetings and just about anywhere he can get an audience of likely voters — places such as Whitey’s Café in East Grand Forks, the Eagles Club in Rochester, Seven Elephants coffee shop in St. Cloud and the Happy Chef in Mankato.

Last weekend, he attended both the 7th Congressional District Republican convention in Willmar and the 3rd District convention in Maple Grove. This weekend he was trying to make both the 1st District convention in Albert Lea and the 2nd District meeting in Lakeville.

“I’ve seen a lot of the state. We’ve blown two tires. … One trip was nearly 2,000 miles before I got home again,” Dahlberg said during a break on one of his recent road trips.

Why not run?

Dahlberg, 52, lives in Morgan Park with his 9-year-old daughter, Maiga. He was born in Duluth but grew up in Esko, where his parents owned a grocery store. He quietly has become a veteran in Duluth politics. He served one term on the City Council from 1992-94 before going on to law school. Dahlberg also spent 25 years in the U.S. Army Reserves, retiring last autumn.

In 2008, Dahlberg returned to local politics with a surprising upset over longtime incumbent Bill Kron for St. Louis County commissioner, representing the western third of Duluth. In 2012 Dahlberg easily won a second, four-year term over challenger Debbie Isabell-Nelson.

While he’s never run before as a Republican — both city and county races are officially nonpartisan — Dahlberg says his success as conservative winning races in DFL-dominated Duluth can translate statewide. His reputation on the County Board is as a fiscal conservative, a small government advocate voting against even modest tax increases and backing business interests, such as copper mining and voting to privatize a county-run nursing home.

Yet Dahlberg is selling himself as a candidate who can reach out to independents and even conservative Democrats, giving a Republican a chance to win statewide. He likes to point out that in 2012 he received 60 percent of the vote in western Duluth, a district where Barack Obama won 70 percent.

“I’m not a no-government guy,” Dahlberg said, referring to the plight of his developmentally disabled brother who has benefited from government services. “But decisions are best made close to home. Washington doesn’t have all the answers. … I think my message will sell well with a lot of Reagan Democrats across the state, the same kind of people in my district who voted for me.”

Dahlberg is the first Duluthian to run for the U.S. Senate in recent history and the first local Republican to run for just about anything statewide.

Lars Fladmark, retired Duluth publishing executive, met with Dahlberg last autumn over lunch and told him the candidate to follow his dreams even if the idea of running for U.S. Senate seemed far-fetched to others.

“I said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go ahead.’ If you want to move up in politics, even if you don’t make it the first time, name recognition is a big deal,” Fladmark said.

Fladmark agreed to serve as Dahlberg’s fundraising chief for a few months of 2013 but then gave way to a full-time campaign director this year. He says Dahlberg has a good future in politics no matter what happens in the Senate race this year.

“He’s a good man. I’d trust him with my children, and I’d trust him with my money,” Fladmark said. “Is he a big underdog? Absolutely. He knows that. But stranger things have happened in politics. Franken is vulnerable. And sometimes in politics people rise to the top very quickly.”

Dahlberg supporters see the campaign as a three-way race, with their candidate battling Ortman for the party endorsement — whoever gets at least 60 percent of the convention delegate’s vote May 31 in Rochester — and the winner battling McFadden in the party primary Aug. 12.

Dahlberg and Ortman both have agreed to drop out if they don’t get the convention endorsement. McFadden would certainly accept the party nomination but likely will run in the August primary either way, Republican pundits say.

McFadden, a millionaire in his own right, leads the Republican field for campaign money in the bank, with about $1.7 million as of January, when the last report was released. That’s far less than Franken, who was nearing $5 million to start the year, but more than Ortman at $250,000 and far more than Dahlberg, who reported just $103,000 as of January.

McFadden also has an impressive list of Republican backers, including former Minnesota U.S. Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman (who, after a long recount battle, lost to Franken by a few hundred votes in 2008.) In addition, several prominent national Republicans have backed McFadden, including strategist Karl Rove as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and John Thune of South Dakota, among several others.

Meanwhile Ortman was the big winner in the Republican caucus straw poll in early February, attracting 31 percent of the support. McFadden trailed with 22 percent, Abeler garnered 15 percent while Dahlberg finished fourth at 11 percent. About 16 percent of the Republican caucus-goers were undecided.

Last month, Ortman got another boost when former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin endorsed her, calling Ortman a “mama grizzly” who can beat Franken.

Big name support

Dahlberg’s candidacy isn’t without some big-name backing, most notably Stanley Hubbard, an influential Twin Cities Republican and owner of television stations in Duluth and the Twin Cities. Hubbard wrote an early letter of support for Dahlberg’s campaign and serves as the campaign’s finance chairman.

“We’ve been watching Chris and we think he’s had a great career up there. Beyond that, I think he has the ability to get the nomination and get elected,” Hubbard said. “Winning is pretty important. I think he can win.”

Hubbard said Dahlberg may be the best of the Republican candidates at relating to the average Minnesota. But he conceded that Dahlberg faces tough battles, first against Ortman for the convention nomination and then against McFadden in a primary.

“I know Mike; I think he’d be a good candidate. … Julianne is a good candidate, too. But I think Chris understands ordinary people. I like the way he communicates with people,” Hubbard said. “The hard part is convincing people he can win it. If he can’t do that, then we’ll back whoever can.”

Ben Golnik, former Minnesota Republican party chief and longtime political strategist, said Dahlberg began to attract attention within the party this winter, when he started challenging Ortman about the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, with the two sparring over who dislikes it more. While Ortman has said the act needs wholesale changes, Dahlberg and many other hardcore Republicans say it needs to be repealed entirely.

“Chris started to get his name out there on social media when he started challenging Ortman on Obamacare,” Golnik said. “He’s starting to get a second look from some” Republican activists.

Golnik said Ortman and McFadden are better known statewide among Republicans than Dahlberg, which makes Dahlberg’s quest for the nomination more difficult. Moreover, even if Dahlberg wins the party endorsement, that won’t mean as much party money or organization as it used to, Golnik noted, with the state Republican party just emerging out of debt problems.

“To win statewide you need both money and organization, and McFadden seems to have both,” Golnik said. “But I think Dahlberg can give Ortman a challenge for the endorsement. Whoever wins (the endorsement) whether that’s enough to slingshot them to a primary win against McFadden, I don’t know. It will be tough. But it’s certainly possible.”

Ted Lovdahl, 8th Congressional District Republican chairman, said he endorsed McFadden early on because of the candidate’s proven ability to raise money.

“Mike has a lot of money behind him, and it’s going to take a lot of money to beat Al Franken,” Lovdahl said. “I like Chris … but he’s fighting an uphill battle; both trying to get people to know him and to raise money.”

Lovdahl, who lives in Effie in northern Itasca County, said McFadden did well in straw poling at 8th District caucuses in February. But he said he’s bound to support whoever gains the party endorsement at the convention.

“If Chris gets the endorsement, I’d be right there in his corner fighting for him,” Lovdahl added.

According to a recent poll by KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities (a Hubbard-owned station), Dahlberg and Ortman are neck and neck in their ability to compete with Franken, although both are still well behind Franken at 49 to 41 margins. McFadden, the leading fundraiser among Republican candidates, trailed Franken 50 percent to 40 percent in the poll, with others lagging far behind.

That ability to poll well with the better known, Twin Cities-based candidates has bolstered Dahlberg’s spirits on the long campaign trail.

“Even though I got a late start in the race, those numbers (in the KSTP poll) show I’m right in there against Franken” compared to the other Republicans, Dahlberg said. “Some people said, ‘Chris, there’s no way for you to get the endorsement or to beat Franken.’ But that’s what they said about my chances against Bill Kron, and look what happened.”