February 25, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Early in the day at a snow-covered park on a hill above downtown Stillwater, it feels colder than the 18-degree temperature.
Pioneer Park overlooking the St. Croix River valley is the latest stop for Mark Kennedy who, almost two years before election day 2006, is canvassing Minnesota in a motor home adorned with blue and white "Kennedy for Senate" campaign signs.
"Thanks all for coming out to Stillwater," Kennedy greets the small group. "We figured as part of our statewide tour we had to come to where Minnesota began, and this has got to be one of the most beautiful sights in the state."
Kennedy has no coat and no gloves. He wears his familiar blue blazer and jokes about the cold. He speaks for just a few minutes to roughly 20 people.
The new Senate candidate sounds much like he did in his three campaigns for the House of Representatives. He speaks broadly about the major issues: national security, the economy and education. But he avoids taking concrete stands on controversial issues like Social Security.
Kennedy underscores he's a fourth generation Minnesotan. He says his candidacy offers voters "a common sense, solution-based approach" to politics.
"I've found in my little over four years in the House that too often the things we try to get done, we get done in the House but they get stuck in the Senate," Kennedy says. "And that's why I'm moving forward to try to reclaim this seat."
The seat Kennedy wants to claim currently belongs to Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. Dayton defeated Republican Rod Grams in the 2000 election, and recently announced he will not seek a second term.
Several Democrats and Republicans have expressed interest in running. But none, apart from Kennedy, has launched a campaign.
After the brief appearance at the park in Stillwater, Kennedy retreats to the warmth of his RV to field questions from a few reporters. He does not downplay his early, aggressive campaign swing.
"We literally are covering from Rochester to Worthington to Moorhead to Duluth," Kennedy says. "Maybe not yet every corner of the state, but pretty close."
Kennedy maintains a successful Senate campaign needs to begin very early in the year before the election.
"I'm a common sense, solution-based guy, 20 years in business, focused on how do you get things done," Kennedy explains. "And I think if you look at the successful Senate campaigns in the last cycle, almost all of those were announced in January or February. I do want to listen. I do want to reach out, meet as many as I can face-to-face, and that requires starting a little earlier."
In fact, of the nine newly-elected senators in 2004, only two launched campaigns early in the year before the election, as Kennedy is doing now. And not since Democrat Paul Wellstone's run for the 1990 election, has a Senate candidate in Minnesota begun formally campaigning prior to an election year.
Although Kennedy is clearly focused on his Senate campaign, he insists he'll also fulfill his House duties. But as quickly as Kennedy hit the Senate campaign trail, Democrats pounced, accusing him of shirking his House responsibilities in favor of his new campaign.
"This is, a blatant, I think, disregard to the people that returned him to the United States Congress in the 6th Congressional District," says Mike Erlandson, chairman of the Minnesota DFL. "He clearly has no interest in being a member of the United States House of Representatives."
Erlandson is among several Democrats considering a Senate run. He says it is very early in the election process to be campaigning the way Kennedy is.
"Most of the voters don't pay any attention until the final two weeks, which is October of 2006. Today it is February of 2005, and Mark Kennedy is in a Winnebago, campaigning like a barnstorming across the state of Minnesota," Erlandson says. "Frankly, I think it might hurt him if he gets a serious Republican challenger -- not help him, because people get tired of the constant campaigning."
Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier says Kennedy's tour is not aimed at most voters.
Instead, Schier says, Kennedy is trying to bolster support among GOP activists in hopes of locking in Republican front-runner status as soon as possible.
"He wants to have a relatively easy road to the party endorsement," Schier says. "The more time he has to fend off opponents getting the party endorsement, the less attention he can devote to raising money for the general election campaign. And so this is a rational strategy."
Schier and others predict the 2006 Senate race could break the nearly $25 million Minnesota spending record set in the last campaign. And that doesn't include the tens of millions of dollars in outside money the race will likely attract.