Some of the best-known Republicans in Minnesota are lined up behind Mike McFadden's U.S. Senate campaign, but not because he has a strong track record in elective office.
Indeed, McFadden has no political resume. But GOP insiders hope what the business executive lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in cash. The more than $2 million he's raised for his campaign make him a front-runner in the Republican contest to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken this fall.
"In the first 30 days he raised three-quarters of a million dollars," said former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, an honorary co-chair of the McFadden campaign. "That catches people's attention."
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, another co-chair, said McFadden has demonstrated he can raise the kind of money Republicans need to mount a serious challenge to Franken.
"If you don't have the ability to raise money to get your message out then, in the end, you know it's a tree falling in the forest — the sound of one hand clapping," said Coleman, who lost to Franken six years ago by 312 votes after a contentious recount. "Nobody hears."
Often when members of the establishment wing of a political party get behind one candidate early in an intra-party contest, it's because they've encouraged that person to run. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush, for example, personally appealed to Coleman to run against U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
But Republican leaders did not come together to anoint McFadden, Coleman and Boschwitz said.
"We didn't know him at all beforehand," Boschwitz said. "He made himself known to us."
McFadden's fundraising success is evident as he tries to make himself known to Minnesota voters. Already, he has put out two TV ads and produced several campaign videos in a running series called "Minute with Mike."
"We can do better as America and it's never been more important," McFadden said in one video.
In the installment, "Sense of Duty," McFadden explains that he put his successful business career on hold to run for the Senate because he and his wife, Mary Kate wanted to lend his business expertise to public service.
"We're embarrassed by what we're handing off to our kids," McFadden said in the video. "We haven't been good stewards. We're going to give them $17 trillion of debt and an economy that's completely stagnant, and I think a loss of the American ethos around the American dream and what it means to be successful and the concept of earned success."
McFadden, co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market, a Minneapolis-based finance and asset management firm, took a leave of absence to run for Senate.
Boschwitz said because McFadden had a successful business career instead of a career in politics, he could attract a lot of support at a time when so many people hold politicians in contempt.
"I think voters like the idea of sending a non-politician, particularly a guy like Mike who acted as an agent to sell businesses and buy businesses — somebody who can work out the difficulties between two sides — is needed in Washington," Boschwitz said.
But Boschwitz also acknowledges the downside of being a political newcomer.
"He's prone to make mistakes," he said of the candidate.
McFadden has made a lot of them, University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said. First, he said he supported requiring sellers at gun shows to run background checks on buyers and then said he opposed them. But more generally, Pearson said, McFadden has ducked issues.
"McFadden' inability to talk about a lot of important policy issues that he would need to be well versed in if elected to the Senate I think has gotten him a lot of negative press on the campaign trail," Pearson said.
Straw polls suggest that going into this month's GOP endorsing convention. McFadden trails the front-runner, state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen.
If McFadden doesn't win, he plans to seek the Republican nomination in the primary.
Coleman said a primary could help McFadden hone his emerging political skills.
"I actually do think it would be healthy to sharpen your skills against fellow Republicans," Coleman said. "I hope though that the focus is not on attacking each other, but on saying 'Here's why Al Franken shouldn't continue to be there.'"
Although Republicans haven't sorted out who they will put up against Franken, it's clear that DFL leaders think McFadden will be on the November ballot. That's why they're spending more time criticizing McFadden than all of the other GOP contenders combined.