MANKATO — In a year and a week, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg hopes to receive roughly one and a half million votes — and at least one more than Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken in the 2014 general election.
But on Wednesday night, Dahlberg was content to try to win over a handful of Mankato-area Republican activists in the conference room at the Happy Chef.
“How do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time,” the Duluth attorney said.
While the elephant-consumption analogy was about eliminating the nation’s $17 trillion debt, which Dahlberg said would be his top priority, he also concedes he has a big task in front of him to win the Republican endorsement to challenge Franken. The GOP is fresh off a blow-out loss in the 2012 Senate race after Republican activists endorsed a little-known, underfinanced freshman lawmaker against Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The 25-year Army Reserve veteran, though, said he’s treating the race like a 15-mile ruck march, putting his head down and taking it a step at a time.
“We’re far out in the race,” said Dahlberg, who is facing, among others, long-time state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen and businessman Mike McFadden of Sunfish Lake for the chance to take on Franken. This month, Ortman won a non-binding straw poll at the off-year Republican state convention and McFadden revealed he already has $1.2 million on hand for his campaign, more than state Rep. Kurt Bills raised in his entire campaign against Klobuchar.
But Dahlberg said he offers Republicans, who are in the midst of a rough losing streak in statewide elections, a different kind of candidate. He’s a Republican who won union endorsements in his second county board victory in 2010 and won election in a city where Barack Obama was picking up nearly 70 percent of the vote.
While he said he will be steadfast in reducing debt, repealing the Affordable Care Act and looking to return government control to the states, Dahlberg said he has no interest in personal slams against Democrats — including Franken.
“Mr. Franken, I’m sure, is a good man,” he said, prompting sounds of disagreement from a couple of the Republicans on hand.
Dahlberg responded by saying that even if Democrats are wrong on the issues “it doesn’t make a person a bad person.” And he said it will be necessary to work with Democrats to make progress on some of his priorities, a prospect he said is undermined by caustic rhetoric.
“You can’t grandstand. You’ve got to respect people,” he said.
Dahlberg’s meeting in Mankato was hosted by a pair of Blue Earth County commissioners who became acquainted with him through the Association of Minnesota Counties. The support of Commissioner Mark Piepho, a former Republican lawmaker and longtime party member, wasn’t surprising.
Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg, though, was making an uncommon foray into partisan politics.
“I’m the one, probably, nonpartisan person who’s here,” Stuehrenberg said before endorsing Dahlberg. “... I just like him because he’s a straight shooter, he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks, and he’s got character.”
Before heading back to Duluth, he reminded the small crowd that he’d need some help to make it to the end of his 15-mile march: “I’m going against a guy who can hold fundraisers with Conan O’Brien ... .”
Shirley Piepho, wife of the county commissioner, joked that Dahlberg has a couple of big-name supporters, too.
“You’ve got Mark and Vance,” she shouted.