Judgment Calls

“You get into the position of making judgment calls. Those are the calls I enjoy making on the basketball court and they are the ones I certainly enjoyed making in the legislature.”

Former Rep. Steve Sviggum

This was a quote from the newly elected minority leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives when asked to compare his duties as a high school basketball referee to his job as minority leader. Sviggum was a farm boy from a proud family of Norwegian settlers that populated the farming area around the Vang Lutheran Church between the small hamlets of Dennison and Kenyon. He went on to attend St. Olaf College where he gained his degree in teaching.

He won election to the House of Representatives at the age of 28 in the Republican surge of 1978. He took over leadership of the minority House caucus at the end of the 1992 session. He entered 1993 with only 48 members, a whopping 36 seats less than the majority DFL caucus. He took over a caucus in turmoil, being elected the third person to the post over a 4-year period.

Many considered one of his greatest leadership assets that he brought to his caucus was his ability as a recruiter. His recruiting skills would be the envy of any college basketball coach. He often ran roughshod over local Republican Party apparatuses to get candidates he thought were winners into the game. His formula centered on identifying individuals that fit their district and he wasn’t afraid to recruit disenchanted DFLers where it made sense in order to win. His strategy of aggressively recruiting women and teachers in suburban areas was highly successful. He particularly liked to recruit individuals that had successful athletic backgrounds because he felt they had a competitive drive that made them good candidates.

As a result of his recruiting prowess, by 1998 Sviggum helped the Republican Party take the majority in the Minnesota House and then hold it for another 8 years. As a result he served as the second longest serving Speaker of the House in Minnesota history.

Exactly 20 years after Sviggum took the leadership of the Republican House Caucus, Rep. Kurt Daudt (Crown) has taken over the caucus. The caucus is in a very similar deflated position that Sviggum encountered when he first took over the helm. Today the House Republican legislative caucus is reeling from a major defeat in the 2012 election. The state party is in disarray and significantly in debt.  Daudt would be wise to take a lesson from Sviggum in the area of recruiting. It will be the most significant thing he will probably do over the next 2 years, given the little influence his caucus will have over the legislative process.

Therefore, the two recent resignations of House members taking jobs elsewhere sets up as Daudt’s first major test. Recently both Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) and Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud) have announced they will leave the Legislature. Major funders to the Republican cause will be watching the performance of Daudt and his new team to see how they perform. This may determine where the funders will put their money in the coming election cycle. Will they help the caucuses or will they put their money into political action committees to manage their contributions instead?

The District 19A seat in the St. Peter area will probably be their most significant challenge to show they can recruit a good candidate that can win in a DFL district. District 19A leans DFL by a good 5-10 percentage points, but it may have some vulnerabilities in a special election. St. Peter is a college town and the turnout for college students typically has a significant drop-off in special elections, impairing the DFL’s chances. What is important to the Republican caucus is that they need to find a candidate who can not only win in the special election, but will be able to hold this district in the general election to help them win their true prize – a majority in 2014.

Adding to Daudt’s challenge are the early indications that former State Rep. Alan Quist, who lives in the rural part of the district, has indicated desire to run. Quist has a strong base within the conservative activists of the party, having successfully taken the Republican endorsement for the 1st Congressional District, but then losing by a significant margin in the general election. Quist will be popular with the activist base, but may not be the best person to hold the district in 2014.

In the congressional race he only won 37% of the vote in the area covered by District 19A even though Mitt Romney had 45% of the vote in the same area. Quist even lost his home rural township garnering only 43% of the vote while Romney took 55% of the vote.

Even though these elections judgment calls will have little effect on the vote differential in the House, it is important to keep your eye on how these elections play out. If the new Republican minority leader and his team perform well in recruiting competitive candidates in the coming two special elections, it will send a significant message and affect how seriously they will be taken as the 2013 legislative session unfolds.

*House Session Weekly, January 22, 1993

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