Anoka Republican wades into Senate race

Published 2:41 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ST. PAUL — A veteran Republican legislator from Anoka made a surprising entrance Tuesday into Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race.

State Rep. Jim Abeler announced his bid in an email blast that said he had formed a campaign committee. Abeler’s freshly launched campaign website was much more direct in saying, “I’m running for the U.S. Senate.” He hadn’t been on the political radar for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

“This is my time to do a job for my state and my country,” Abeler said in a telephone interview. He said he had been quietly mulling the race for four months.

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Abeler, 59, is a chiropractor who has been in the Minnesota House for 15 years, specializing in health care issues as a lawmaker.

He is the second GOP candidate to declare a challenge to Franken, joining business executive Mike McFadden. Franken has a substantial head start in fundraising, but won his seat by a scant 312 votes in the 2008 election.

In his email announcement, Abeler said he believes America “is in trouble” because of what he calls “compulsive” government spending and erosion of personal privacy. He said Americans are on a path to being “indentured debtors” to creditor countries.

He first won office in 1998 and has cruised to re-election seven times since in his district, which encompasses several blue-collar suburbs.

While right-of-center, Abeler is not easy to pin down on the political spectrum.

He caught heat from within his party in 2008 when he broke ranks and helped Democrats override then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase measure. Abeler handily won re-election that year anyway. More than once, he has been one of the few GOP legislative candidates endorsed by the Education Minnesota teachers union. In 2012, Abeler endorsed libertarian-style Republican Ron Paul for president.

Abeler said he would seek the party’s endorsement at next spring’s state convention but wouldn’t rule out running in an August 2014 primary if another candidate is endorsed. He said he thinks he can convince party activists that he is solution-oriented and principled.

“The pathway is to go meet Republicans across the state and remind them of what kind of work I’ve done and the problem solver I’ve been,” Abeler said.

Andy Brehm, a Republican strategist not aligned with any campaign, said having competition for the GOP nomination will make the party’s candidate stronger. But Brehm has trouble seeing a viable route for Abeler.

“This is a longshot candidate for sure,” Brehm said. “People are hungry for independent but they’re not hungry for inconsistency. Voting for taxes before is going to be a nonstarter.”

Abeler may not be the only sitting legislator in the Republican race. State Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhasssen has said she is considering running and would decide this summer.

Franken and his advisers haven’t commented on any potential challengers, but they’re gearing up for a spirited campaign.

“We don’t know who we’ll be facing, but it’s clear that Al will have a well-funded opponent — and that national Republicans and their special interest pals are itching to invade Minnesota, checkbooks at the ready,” Franken campaign manager Matt Burgess said in a fundraising email sent out soon after Abeler announced.

Abeler and wife, Barb, have six sons ranging in age from 14 to 30.