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Targeting Rod Grams
By Martin Kaste
September 2, 1999
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As summer winds down, Minnesota's political operatives are turning their attention to the next statewide election: the U.S. Senate seat on the ballot in November, 2000. The race is getting special attention from national political strategists, as Democrats see an opportunity to defeat Rod Grams, a Republican incumbent who's not doing well in opinion polls. But state and national Republican leaders say they're confident in Grams' ability to hold the seat.
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FROM THE WASHINGTON OFFICES of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Minnesota looks like prime territory for strategists plotting a Democratic return to the Senate majority. Holly Armstrong, a spokesperson for the DSCC, says the reason is Minnesota's junior Senator, Rod Grams.
Armstrong: Grams is one of the most - if not the most - vulnerable incumbent. In fact, there are kind of rumors running around that the Republican Senate Committee is trying to get him to retire. But from any way you look at it, his poll numbers, the fact that he's a freshman, the fact that he was elected with under 50 percent of the vote in a non-presidential year in a year that Republicans fared very well, he's vulnerable from every angle.
Democrats point to Grams' poor showing in a Star Tribune poll over the summer, in which only 38 percent of respondents gave him a favorable rating. Soon after the poll was announced, Grams fired his chief of staff and his campaign manager.

National Republicans and conservative campaign organizations are already moving in to shore Grams up.
Narrator: Most Democrats, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, want to increase spending on more Washington programs. Republicans, led by Senator Rod Grams, want what's left to go to taxpayers to provide more tax relief.
This so-called "issue ad" has been running in heavy rotation on Minnesota TV stations in the last couple of weeks, as part of a $4 million, multi-state campaign by the Washington group "Americans for Tax Reform," which has strong ties to the Republican leadership in Congress.

Grams' staff isn't letting him give interviews about the 2000 race, saying it's too early to talk about it. But Ron Eibensteiner, chairman of the state Republican Party, is willing to talk about the race, and he says he's confident rams is doing better than the polls suggest. Eibensteiner says there's no truth to the rumors that Republicans want a different nominee.
Eibensteiner: : Senator Grams has a broad support out in greater Minnesota, he's much stronger than people think he is, he's got a good grass-roots organization, fund-raising is going very well.
Fundraising is going well. By the end of the last federal reporting period, on June 30, Grams had raised more than $1 million, and most campaign money usually comes in during the election year. Eighty-five percent of that money comes from Minnesota sources. Eibensteiner says Grams' combination of money and local organization is more formidable than Democrats want to admit.
Eibensteiner: : My perception of it is that the Democrats are having a real difficult time putting up a serious candidate for senate, and I think that really speaks to Senator Rod Grams' strength.
There is an unusual lack of big names in the race against Grams, especially considering how vulnerable Democrats say he is. So far, the only two declared candidates are physician Steve Miles and former U.S. Attorney and attorney general candidate David Lillehaug. In the interest of building name-recognition, the two men have camped out at the state fair, often greeting potential voters at the DFL booth at the same time.
Miles: : I'm running for U.S. Senate, for Rod Grams' slot. And I'm a physician. The three issues are going to be health care; everybody's got to have health insurance for their whole life...
Steve Miles is running on issues besides health insurance, but, given his frequent denunciation of HMO's and the system's failure to insure all Americans, he clearly believes health care is the issue that will make his campaign.
Miles: If I went out on this street, took a 100 people, and said, "Labor Day Picnic," you've got your entire family there, cousins, grandparents, and so on, and I asked how many of you have an uninsured person in your family, three-fourths would raise their hands.
The other Democrat in the race, David Lillehaug, seems to come from the same left-of-center part of the party, but he describes his campaign issues in more general terms:
Lillehaug: : The central theme of my campaign is "people's economics," the idea that in a global economy, nobody must be left behind, and that the people who really work hard and contributed to the economy are rewarded what is due them.
He says he opposes the growing consolidation in the economy, especially in areas such as prescription drugs, airlines, telecommunications and agri-business. His politics have a lot in common with those of the man who nominated him for the job of U.S. attorney in Minnesota, Senator Paul Wellstone. Lillehaug says he doesn't see a strategic risk in being perceived as "Wellstone-esque."
Lillehaug: : Well let's see, I believe Paul Wellstone is the U.S. Senator who's been just about the only DFLer to win statewide office in this state in many years.
So far, neither Lillehaug nor Miles have raised much money. As of June 30, Lillehaug led the Democrats with $80,000. Most donors are likely to hold back until party leaders start lining up behind one of them, or until a bigger DFL name enters the race. Second-district Congressman David Minge is running a so-called "exploratory campaign," but he's under pressure from national Democratic leaders to stay where he is as they try to re-take the House in 2000.

Some DFLers are looking to the majority leader in the State Senate, Roger Moe. Last year he said he was ready for a change, after three decades at the state capitol, and he ran for Lieutenant Governor with Skip Humphrey. As that campaign lost steam, some campaign staffers reported Moe was frustrated with the way things were being run, and some now think he'd like to run his own statewide campaign. He admits he's thinking about it.
Moe: Let me be very candid. I am agonizing over a decision to run for United States Senate, but I've not come to any conclusion on that. Basically, last summer was kind of a blur, and I decided that I was going to enjoy this summer the way normal people do, and so I have not focused on it. But I realize I need to come to closure on that and I will.
The Reform Party will also field at least one candidate in the Senate race. So far, that candidate is James Gibson, a software executive from Minneapolis who emphasizes pro-growth economics and opposes what he calls "irresponsible" Republican tax cuts. This will be the Reform Party's first statewide electoral test since Governor Ventura's win, but Gibson says voters shouldn't assume he's a carbon-copy of Ventura.
Gibson: : A lot of the issues I'm concerned with are national issues, his are state issues, on issues that are common, I think you'll find some we agree on, some no, but I'm not going to take a position simply to be in conformance with him.
Gibson is a newcomer to politics in general and the Reform Party in particular, and he has next to no name recognition. But he's had help from some key Reform Party organizers, who seem confident he'll be able to make a statewide impression. There's more than just an election at stake for the Reform Party. for Reformers to maintain their major-party status, their senate candidate will have to capture at least five percent of the vote.