CLEARWATER, Minn. (AP) — Perhaps the best evidence of Tom Emmer’s commanding position in his campaign for Congress is this: He’s not allowed to wear his rollerblades.
The image of Emmer skating down parade lines, shaking and slapping hands, has been a staple of hockey-dad persona, but his handlers said no this year. As the GOP’s defeated 2010 governor candidate tries to restart his career with a win in Tuesday’s primary, a broken bone, it seems, is all that could hurt Emmer’s chances.
Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah acknowledges Emmer is the favorite in their battle to take retiring U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 6th District seat. But Sivarajah wears her underdog status proudly, hanging in after Emmer was endorsed by the party and as she has been outspent nearly 5-to-1.
In the heavily conservative 6th, Tuesday’s winner will be the front-runner in November against the Democratic candidate, Sartell Mayor Joe Perske.
After his narrow loss to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton four years ago, Emmer says he’s “re-introducing” himself to the district, stressing a renewed focus on listening to voters’ concerns and bringing them to Washington. Sivarajah portrays herself as a no-nonsense commissioner who has pushed Anoka County in a conservative direction since she was first elected in 2002.
Emmer weaved through lawn chairs at a recent parade in Clearwater, moving away from the lines of outstretched hands only to jog to catch up to the old-school fire engine serving as his float. Not far behind, Sivarajah’s trailer blared the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” as her supporters danced with campaign signs.
Sivarajah was in the 2010 governor’s race too, although only briefly as running mate to former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert. That ended when Emmer, not Seifert, won the party endorsement.
Throughout that campaign, Democrats and their allies branded Emmer as bombastic and unreasonable. He disputes that label. Emmer said his opponents — in both parties — “did a very good job defining me as someone who I wasn’t before I even had a chance to define myself.”
“That perception was something we had to overcome. We almost did,” Emmer said.
Emmer conceded that election after a month-long recount showed him trailing Dayton by nearly 9,000 votes. In a year when Republicans won control of both the state House and Senate, Emmer’s loss hurt even more.
Even a former opponent who criticizes Emmer as having a thin record of accomplishment said his resurgence has been impressive.
“Here’s a guy who had been beat up pretty well by the opposition in the governor’s race,” said Phil Krinkie, who dropped out of the primary after sensing Emmer’s momentum. “Like a phoenix, he rose from the ashes. He really did.”
Krinkie attributes Emmer’s renewed support to the two years he spent hosting a conservative talk radio show.
One resident of the district, Adam Stendahl of Rockford, said the show bolstered his impression of Emmer as a genuine, nice guy. Stendahl greeted Emmer at the Wright County Fair as “Mr. Congressman.”
Stendahl, a small business owner, said he knew little of Sivarajah but he’s followed Emmer’s political career from his days on the Delano City Council. He said he thinks Emmer can balance Minnesota’s left-leaning congressional delegation.
“I think he does a real good job of getting the message across without the divisiveness,” he said.
Sivarajah said voters have a choice between her results on the Anoka County Commission and her opponent’s rhetoric. She compared Emmer to Bachmann, and pointed to the congresswoman’s narrow victory two years ago as proof that the district is ready for a different kind of Republican.
“We have too many people who want to be the first one in front of the microphone,” Sivarajah said.
But she’s struggled to raise money. Outside of the $320,000 she’s loaned her campaign, Sivarajah has gotten just $86,000 from donors in the last 14 months, according to federal filings. Emmer has raised more than $1 million, and spent much of it.
Emmer’s biggest asset could be the experience of the 2010 race, his first trying to jump into a big-money election.
“For almost any other candidate or campaign, when they’re making that leap, it’s a lot of scale up,” said campaign manager David FitzSimmons, who also managed part of Emmer’s 2010 bid. “We have that advantage of having been there.”
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