On an unseasonably cold day in early May, state Sen. Julianne Ortman was warming up a crowd of potential supporters in her quest to unseat Sen. Al Franken.
"We're never going to have spring until we get rid of Al Franken," Ortman told the Tea Party Express rally. "It's 2014, and we the citizens of the state of Minnesota are going to remove Al Franken from office."
Ortman is among a handful of candidates seeking the Republican Party's endorsement to run against Franken, a Democrat, in November's general election. At this point in the race, she's making her case to party loyalists by highlighting her conservative credentials, including an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Winning the party's stamp of approval, however, may be challenging for the long-time state senator from Chanhassen. In years past, critics within her own party have questioned her conservatism, raising concerns about her record on taxes, same-sex marriage and other issues.
Ortman represents Carver County, one of the state's most conservative districts. In 2012, she failed to win her local party endorsement -- but she won the primary.
In February, despite conservative concerns, she came out on top in a GOP straw poll as the favorite of precinct caucus-goers to take on Franken.
Conservative, not angry
Among the candidates seeking to challenge Franken, Ortman is relatively well-known to party insiders. A lawyer by training, Ortman became the first female chair of the Senate Tax Committee in 2011 and served in the Senate's GOP leadership.
Ortman says her legislative style is based on listening and finding consensus, a skill she honed while being in the Republican minority at Macalester College during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
That style may have also contributed to her endorsement woes in 2012.
"Some people wanted to say that I wasn't conservative or conservative enough," Ortman said of her endorsement challenge. "I say I'm conservative, I'm just not angry."
Bruce Schwichtenberg, an auto mechanic in Chaska, was among Ortman's endorsement challengers that year, and ended up losing to her in the primary.
He said he once put up campaign signs for Ortman but concluded that she fell down on the job after Republicans took control of the state Senate in 2011.
As an example, he cited the failed effort to write a same-sex marriage ban into the state's constitution.
Ortman supported efforts to bring constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage to the Senate floor early in her career.
In a 2010 committee speech, however, Ortman's language on the issue seemed to soften, referring to efforts to ban same-sex marriage in the constitution as a "sword to hurt people, to identify people as different and create disparities ... I know minds and hearts are changing on this issue every single day. Honestly it's a great relief to me."
In 2011, she voted to put the constitutional same-sex marriage ban question on the ballot in 2012.
However, she also voted with Democrats to table the 2012 ban.
Ultimately, Ortman voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013.
But that doesn't satisfy Schwichtenberg. Ortman, he said, "has been on every side of the fence, including under it, on the marriage amendment."
Ortman's record on tax policy is also confusing, because she has proposed a handful of tax increases, Carver County Republican Party official Jeff Katherman said.
"I know those (conservative) endorsements would be at odds with maybe how people feel locally," Katherman said. "I think she sometimes has a record of being a little bit inconsistent and you don't quite know what she's going to be pushing for and what she won't be."
Ortman raised eyebrows within her own caucus in 2011, when she said she would consider cutting spending on tax loopholes to raise revenue to close the state's budget gap.
"The concern for a lot of conservatives, and frankly the concern I had, is that one person's closing of a loophole is another person's tax increase," said former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.
For her part, Ortman said any tax proposal she considered, some of which she said were effectively user fees, was part of being a good legislator.
"It's important to have policy conversations," she said. "That's what I mean about being principled and effective. No, I won't vote to raise anyone's taxes but I will push forward ideas to talk about 'how do we accomplish our goals?'"
Ortman has also made it clear that she would completely repeal the Affordable Care Act if she's elected after endorsement opponent Chris Dahlberg criticized her for telling the Star Tribune last fall that she's "not a full repeal person" and suggesting that some parts of the law should remain intact.
The question now is whether those parts of Ortman's largely conservative record will matter to party loyalists when it comes time to endorse a candidate later this month.
"[Ortman] has a good voting record that if everyone wasn't satisfied with, I daresay most were," said Carver County Republican Party chair Vince Beaudette.
Third Congressional District Republican Party co-chair Rick Weible said he noticed Ortman's campaign is better organized than others at a hastily announced party event earlier this year, and that will help her win the endorsement.
"Ortman was there the entire time, ready to speak; campaign signs were up. Especially for short notice, that was impressive," said Weible, adding that some of the far-right fervor of the 2012 elections has abated.
Winning the endorsement is critical for Ortman's campaign because it will bring money and broader support. She's also said she'll abide by the endorsement and not continue her candidacy in a primary. Even if she wins the GOP endorsement, she'll still have to face-off against Mike McFadden, a wealthy businessman who is planning to compete in the primary no matter what happens at the party convention.
McFadden has a fundraising advantage. But Ortman said that what she lacks in cash, she's making up for in individual supporters.
"It's not just about money," she said. "It's about relationships and trusting relationships with our next U.S. Senate candidate, and that's been a very high priority for me from day one."