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All too human: Some Minnesota candidates find their past isn't past

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Minnesota Senate candidate Brad Sanford
Minnesota Senate candidate Brad Sanford campaigning in Blaine on Wednesday. A judge ruled this month that Sanford owes more than $44,000 in back child support stemming from a 2009 divorce.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Brad Sanford is a Republican running for an open Senate seat in the Twin Cities northern suburbs. He's stressing the need for spending discipline in state government.      But as the campaign reaches its apex, Sanford has other finances to worry about — his own. 

A judge ruled this month that Sanford owes more than $44,000 in back child support stemming from a 2009 divorce. The judgment is the culmination of a court battle in progress since the winter.

"Do I believe I don't owe this? Absolutely not," Sanford said. "I contested it because I didn't agree with the dollar amount. But at the end of the day I have always made my payments and will continue to make these payments."

Sanford's race is one Republicans are high on in their quest to win the Senate majority. Sanford, an insurance salesman and sometimes Uber driver, says his situation should not distract from a discussion of more important matters in the campaign. 

"You know, I think it's a non-issue," he said. "I take care of my kids and have always made my payments, so the issue is done and over."

Embarrassing disclosures about a few first-time candidates for the Minnesota Legislature are providing openings to their opponents. Whether the problems sink those candidates remains to be seen. But they serve as a reminder that more of people's lives and their commentary are accessible, and that even low-visibility legislative campaigns are fodder for background researchers. 

And Sanford isn't the only candidate dealing with a problem from the past at an inopportune time. 

This week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune exposed troubling Facebook posts about women, the Confederate flag, President Obama and gays by Blaine-area House candidate Nolan West. 

He has since apologized and removed the posts. But they could complicate Republican efforts to win that hotly contested open seat. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt publicly expressed disappointment with West.

In July, the Star Tribune also drew attention to a 1980s divorce ruling that involved DFL candidate Jerry Loud in a key northwestern Minnesota House race. The ruling included a finding that Loud battered his then-wife. Loud said he had learned from mistakes in his past, but Democratic Party leaders distanced themselves from his campaign.

All of the incidents highlight gaps in vetting of legislative recruits, said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

"There's no doubt that each party got caught with that this year, not doing enough self-research is what we call it on our own candidates," Martin said.

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey agreed that times have changed, given how easy it is to peek into candidate pasts.

"Now literally anybody who is fairly effective with a web browser can do quite a bit," he said.

To be sure, the parties spend loads of time and money delving into candidates on the other side. Less common is research on their own legislative hopefuls. Sometimes it comes down to an honor system where candidates bring up their own potential red flags.

Republican Michael Brodkorb is a former party operative known for strategically using deep-dive research against opponents. He says this year's incidents highlight how expanding digital footprints are easily mined and flaws can't be ignored.

"Look, running for office is an open book, and it will ultimately be up to the public to decide what is or isn't fair game," Brodkorb said.

Brodkorb describes a tension between candidate desires for privacy and the chance problems will bubble up anyway.

Jake Wagman runs Shield Political Research. It's a vetting firm based in Indiana that has Democratic legislative clients in the Midwest but none so far in Minnesota. Services like his are becoming increasingly common for candidates lower on the ballot.

"When I do self-research on a candidate, I tell my client, 'Don't tell me anything. I don't want to know anything about you. I want to start from scratch so I can replicate what the opposition will do,'" he said.

The self-vetting doesn't come cheap, and it competes with other vital components in a campaign budget. 

Wagman's basic routine: Contact area police agencies for reports. Look at court and tax records for signs of legal or financial problems. Make sure resumes hold up. And scour social media sites for posts a candidate might regret.

"My worst nightmare is to have something hit against my client that we didn't know about," Wagman said. "That scares the bejeezus out of me because that's what we exist to counter."