Rep. Emmer wins GOP endorsement for gov.

Published 2:40 pm Saturday, May 1, 2010

State Rep. Tom Emmer captured the GOP endorsement for Minnesota governor on Friday, blitzing establishment candidate and fellow legislator Marty Seifert in a mere two ballots at the party’s state convention.

The backing all but secures him a spot on November’s ballot with no competitive primary expected. That allows Emmer to turn his attention to wooing voters and stockpiling money for the race at a time when Democrats are still trying to sort out their ticket.

Neither Seifert nor Emmer held a clear lead going into the convention, raising the prospect of an extended floor battle. But Emmer, who steadily gained ground on Seifert in recent months and was endorsed a day before the convention by Sarah Palin, jumped out to lead Seifert 53 percent to 43 percent on the first ballot.

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When Emmer stretched his lead on the second ballot, it was over for Seifert. He took the podium to concede, urging the nearly 2,000 party activists to unite behind the man he had attacked during a bitter campaign.

Emmer, who spent months wooing a relatively small cluster of active Republicans, said he looks forward to introducing himself to the rest of Minnesota voters.

“I own blaze orange that’s got blood on it. We hunt, we fish, we’ve been in every hockey rink in this state,” said Emmer, a father of seven. “The Emmers are just another family in the state of Minnesota, and we connect with families in the state of Minnesota.”

Emmer, a lawyer from Delano, has been in the Legislature since 2005. The more experienced Seifert, who was House minority leader before resigning that post to campaign for governor, was the early favorite. But Emmer, a more impassioned speaker, overcame Seifert’s advantage in part by courting tea party followers.

Party leaders planned a unity breakfast on Saturday, with Republican heavyweights coming out to support Emmer. That includes Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is stepping down after two terms with an eye on the White House. Pawlenty had stayed neutral but said he would work hard to elect the candidate the delegates chose.

Republicans say they can’t understate the importance of keeping the governor’s office. Democrats have big majorities in the Legislature heading into a 2011 in which political boundaries will be redrawn for the decade to come to account for population shifts documented by the census.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats face the prospect of a possibly damaging primary fight between House Speaker Margaret Anderson Keller, the endorsed candidate, and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former House minority leader Matt Entenza.

A wild card in the race will be the Independence Party, which has been a factor in recent gubernatorial elections. The IP gathers next Saturday to endorse its own candidate.

Democrats immediately pounced on Emmer, highlighting his association with Palin and calling him “more inflammatory” than Seifert. A statement from party chairman Brian Melendez also mentioned Emmer’s praise this week for Arizona’s polarizing new immigration law. The Democratic Governors Association said Emmer would be akin to a Pawlenty third term.

Emmer’s policy palette is largely empty at this point. He speaks in broad concepts and said he will wait to outline specific proposals for cutting government spending to fix a multibillion dollar deficit.

Seifert and Emmer overlapped on most issues important to Republican delegates: resistance to taxes, opposition to legalized abortion and the promotion of government spending restraints. Their differences came down to personality.

It was Emmer’s vow not to give in to public pressure that appealed to Keith Wilson, a retired businessman from St. Paul.

“I’m tired of people who are smiling all the time and compromising,” Wilson said. “I want someone who promises and sticks to his word.”

Emmer’s video showed him goofing around with his kids and flashing smiles, partly to combat an image that he comes off as too stern. He downplayed his time in the Legislature, focusing mostly on his private pursuits. He stressed to delegates that he worked his way up from the lumber yard to the formation of his own business, a law firm.

“My experience is real-life experience,” Emmer said.

Seifert countered with a video that played up his down-home roots in greater Minnesota, which hasn’t had one of its own in the governor’s office since Iron Ranger Rudy Perpich left in January 1991.

“I know I’m not a fancy person,” he said in the video.