by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Campaigns have to start somewhere, and Republican Rep. Jim Abeler’s U.S. Senate campaign might have started in a barbershop.
“In 1997, I got a similar haircut,” Abeler said of again leaving his shoulder-length locks on the barbershop floor.
Back then, in his run for the Minnesota House, he wanted voters to know he was serious, Abeler said.
Challenging celebrity Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken demands a certain seriousness. And a bit of nerve.
“Well, absolutely, (it’s) intimidating,” Abeler said. “I just know I can do a better job than he has done,” Abeler said June 27.
Among the first people Abeler must convince he’s the guy to defeat Franken is fellow Republicans.
Abeler has gotten into hot water with the party at times but argues that in the general election, the very things that have irked some Republicans will win him votes. For one thing, that’s a willingness to reach “honorable compromise.”
“I’ll say (to Republicans), ‘Look at the election with Congressman (Mark) Kennedy, and (Rep.) Tom Emmer, and Rep. (Kurt) Bills. How did that work?’” Abeler said of fallen Republican statewide candidates of the past. “In the end, you have to find someone who can capture a majority (of the vote).”
Frustration over the past legislative session served as a catalyst for Abeler’s U.S. Senate run.
“It unsettled the nest,” he said.
But Abeler had been pondering a new direction for a number of months.
“I don’t seek a platform. I seek a (work) product,” he said.
Yes, there’s need for debate. “(But) if that’s all you ever have, you become irrelevant,” Abeler said.
Still, Abeler gave his family, down to his youngest son, Judson, 14, veto power over his entering the Senate race.
Abeler is plunging into a cranked-up process in which campaign funding is counted in the millions of dollars and where the northern boundary of the “district,” so to speak, isn’t 181 St. Ave. NW, in Ramsey, but the border with Canada. And Abeler is leaving a safe seat and possible committee chairmanship – that is, should House Republicans recapture the Minnesota House next November.
“I wouldn’t risk that if I didn’t think there was an even chance of defeating Mr. Franken,” Abeler said.
Abeler looks to his State Capitol experience, but especially lessons learned from former Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, former Senate Health and Human Services Finance Committee chairwoman, as a means of influencing the debate as a freshman U.S. senator.
Berglin was a master, Abeler said, of bringing into conference committee modules of savings attached to policy. Lawmakers eagerly accepted these morsels in the hunt for savings. And the morsels added up.
“No one has ever accomplished that before, or is likely ever to do it again,” Abeler said of cutting $2 billion from HHS, achieved under his watch as House Health and Human Services Finance Committee chairman.
And the HHS bill was so balanced, so vetted, that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton “didn’t change one penny of work we had done,” Abeler said. That’s an example of a product.
“They would like to put out a product, too,” Abeler said of Congress.
Health care has been a central focus for Abeler, a chiropractor by profession. Like other Republicans, Abeler is critical of Obamacare — badly written, hastily passed, an “owner’s manual to mediocrity,” as Abeler portrays it.
In May, the Republican-controlled U.S. House ritualistically voted for the 37th time to repeal or defund the landmark 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
But Abeler, as a practical political matter, believes Obamacare is here to stay.
“In three years, it’s going to become ingrained,” he said of the health care changes, such as Minnesota’s health care insurance exchange, already underway.
“So I think it’s impractical to dream it will be repealed,” Abeler said.
Abeler’s U.S. Senate candidacy and the gubernatorial candidacy of former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, have sparked editorial comment about the re-emergence of weighty statewide candidates in the Republican Party.
Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, who considers Abeler one of his closest friends in the Legislature, while surprised by Abeler’s U.S. Senate candidacy — startled, Newton said with a laugh, to see Abeler on TV with a new haircut and in a suit — called Abeler a very credible candidate.
“If they survive their own party,” Newton quipped of Abeler and Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah, another Republican seeking higher office whom Newton likes.
Abeler’s approach to his race is one of looking for little encouragements. In meeting with a reporter in Riverside Park in Anoka, Abeler spoke of a $50 contribution from a Democrat — don’t tell her Democratic family she donated, Abeler was cautioned.
Other people have stepped forward. Fundraisers are planned.
Abeler talked of a Senate campaign costing $10 million.
“Part of the challenge is to preserve your own personality,” he said of running for high office.
In part, Abeler is motivated by the federal debt.
“My granddaughter, who was born on New Years Day, already has debt she has to pay. That doesn’t seem fair,” he said.
Abeler views federal deficit spending as threatening the sovereignty of the United States. There are savings to be found, he insists.
“I’ll pay for my own hair cut, which I did, by the way,” Abeler said, referring to subsidized haircuts available to U.S. senators. According to U.S. News and World Report, the Senate Hair Care salon, which does charge for hair cuts, cost taxpayers more than $400,000 last year.
In small ways, Abeler sees the cures for the country’s fiscal ills practiced by the small business people and local city officials in his district.
“I’m a small-town, Main-Street guy,” he said. “Every time I’ve applied what I’ve learned in Anoka, it’s worked well.”
Abeler, 59, is seeking the Republican U.S. Senate endorsement.
“And I’m going to go out and meet every Republican who will talk to me,” he said.
Asked about successfully conveying the intricacies of health care and the federal budget to votes, Abeler indicated it will be a challenge. But there are simple truths.
“We have to keep the promises we’ve made, and we have to make new promises we can keep,” he said. “They (voters) understand that.”
Republican businessman Mike McFadden is also running for U.S. Senate.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]