Kurt Bills' campaign shrugs off primary performance

Kurt BIlls
Kurt Bills stands outside his campaign bus near Rosemount High School embarking on a campaign swing through southern Minnesota.
MPR photo/ Mark Zdechlik

In a three-way race for the Republican U.S Senate nomination, Rep. Kurt Bills barely topped 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary election.

With Bills winning just 51 percent support, his campaign manager, Mike Osskopp, says that is not a problem but rather constitutes a rather big win over the two competitors. After all, Osskopp said, the candidate who finished closest to Bills, David Carlson, had just 35 percent support.

"To anyone with a clue that doesn't have an agenda, it was a 16-point victory. The primary's now behind us and we're focused on Amy Klobuchar," Osskopp said.

But Bills had the GOP endorsement and only token opposition from candidates who had hardly any money and even less name recognition. Four years ago, Norm Coleman had just one primary opponent but he took 91 percent of the vote. DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who had three primary challengers, took 91 percent of the DFL vote Tuesday.

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Carlson said the Bills campaign is fooling itself it believes Tuesday night's results were a big victory.

"I think it's repudiation and a rejection of the libertarian ideology," Carlson said. He believes Bills ended up with just 51 percent support because many Republicans are concerned about his ties to Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Paul's brand of extreme libertarianism.

Washington University political science professor Steven Smith disputes the notion that Republicans were rejecting Bills in the primary. But that doesn't make the situation any better for Bills less than two-and-a-half months before the general election, Smith said.

Kurt Bills
After filing his election paperwork with the Secretary of State, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills answers questions from the media Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"This shows that Bills has some problems. Name recognition is a pretty serious issue," Smith said. "I don't this is a question of a lack of support among Republicans, but just very, very low name I.D."

Osskopp acknowledges Bills needs to get better known but says the campaign "didn't spend a dime on the primary," and instead had been focused on the general election.

Even if Bills' campaign had wanted to bankroll a voting effort for the primary, it would have had problems doing for it. According to Federal Election Commission records, the Bills campaign had less than $6,000 in cash as of July 25th, the last reporting deadline. Klobuchar ended the period with almost $5.4 million.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said Bills is not the type of "quality" candidate Minnesota Republicans typically put up in major statewide races.

Farmfest debate
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and challengers Kurt Bills and Glen Menze debated Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 at Farmfest near Redwood Falls. Bills said he opposes the farm bill Klobuchar supported.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"Usually a quality candidate has widespread name recognition or holds some sort of major office in the state with an established political record," Schier said. "That's how political scientists tend to talk about quality candidate. Kurt Bills has only served in the state Legislature, in the state House and it not well-known."

Before he was elected to the Minnesota House in 2010, Bills served on the Rosemount City Council. He won the Republican endorsement last spring with the backing of a large contingent of Ron Paul supporters who attended the GOP state convention. Among them was the chair of Paul's presidential campaign in Minnesota Marianne Stebbins. She said Bills would draw more support and more campaign money if he were to run a more unconventional campaign and adhere more closely to the principles Paul espouses. She also said Bills did not endear himself to Paul supporters when he changed his position on foreign aid, at first saying that he would eliminate foreign aid but later saying that he would continue funding for Israel.

"He is surrounded by legislators and by traditional Republicans, and unfortunately I think that's rubbing off on him a bit," Stebbins said. "You need to take a firm stand. Ron Paul didn't get his adoring following by waffling on issues."

Stebbins said Bills turned down her invitation to speak at a major Ron Paul rally in Tampa, Fla. the day before the Republican National Convention. The Bills campaign says he will stay in Minnesota in order to meet with as many voters as possible at the State Fair.