The powerful chair of the Minnesota Senate tax committee faces an unusual hurdle this summer in her bid for re-election.
Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who also serves at the Deputy Senate Majority Leader, faces a primary challenge Aug. 14 from a fellow Republican.
It wasn't the kind of endorsing convention a three-term incumbent normally faces. In May, Ortman faced two challengers. One dropped out after the first ballot, but the other, Bruce Schwichtenberg, held firm. After a two-hour fight, delegates in Senate District 47 ended the convention without endorsing a candidate.
Ortman later blamed the impasse on what she viewed as "unusual circumstances," including a large turnout by supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul's run for president.
"I think it left something to be desired in terms of the representation of the entire community in the selection of delegates. But they followed the system. They did a really good job of making their voice heard," Ortman said. "You can do nothing but commend folks that were organizing the Ron Paul effort. They did a great job."
But Ortman's GOP opponent insists there was another factor. Schwichtenberg believes Republicans in Carver County have grown tired of their incumbent legislator. Schwichtenberg said Ortman is just not conservative enough for the district she represents.
"It shouldn't have been a close race. It really shouldn't have," Schwichtenberg said. "If people believed in what she was doing, it wouldn't be close. But it was."
Schwichtenberg is a self-employed auto mechanic who has been active in the Republican party and has embraced the small government principles of the tea party movement. He made two unsuccessful runs for Carver County commissioner, and worked on Tom Emmer's gubernatorial campaign two years ago. Despite the Republicans' controlling win of the Minnesota House and Senate in 2010, Schwichtenberg was disappointed to see little change in the level of state government spending. He blamed Ortman.
"The expectation when Republicans had control of the House and the Senate was spending was going to go down," Schwichtenberg said. "With the leadership in place, they seem to be more moderate and it was status quo, and they kept on going. And Sen. Ortman was part of that leadership team."
Ortman said Schwichtenberg's claims are not credible and that her voting record is among the most conservative at the State Capitol, but Republican efforts to cut more spending could not get past DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Ortman said the biggest difference between herself and Schwichtenberg and his supporters is that they are angry and she is not.
"I'm conservative. I'm just not angry, and I think that they often equate the two; that if you're sufficiently angry, then you're conservative," Ortman said. "I don't believe that. I just think it makes you angry."
The primary contest has put the district's two incumbent Republican state representatives on opposing sides. Rep. Ernie Leidiger of Mayer backs Schwichtenberg, who he says is a better fit for the district.
"If you've got an incumbent that just is not doing what you want them to do, then do you stick with that person just because they're in leadership? No," Leidiger said. "I mean, I think that's why we have elections. That's why you change people out so the person that you put in is more reflective of your views."
Rep. Joe Hoppe of Chaska backs Ortman. Hoppe said he has spoken to many voters this summer and has not heard complaints about Ortman.
"When we talk about politics, and people find out that Sen. Ortman has a primary challenge, almost everyone says, 'really, why?' " Hoppe said. "I think people generally look at her as someone who's a pretty effective leader on fiscal issues and tax issues, and I think people are generally pretty happy that she represents our area." Hoppe's own re-election effort is underway, but he is also campaigning for Ortman and helping her raise money. Hoppe is sure Ortman would offer similar assistance if he were the one facing a primary challenge.