By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
After nearly six hours and eight rounds of balloting, southern Minnesota Republicans settled on state Rep. Randy Demmer of Hayfield as their best hope of unseating Democratic Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato.
“What I’m sensing is the passion we have in this room for one thing,” Demmer told the delegates shortly before the results of the sixth ballot were announced. “That we need to bring someone out of here who’s going to go after Tim Walz and take this seat back for the conservatives and the Republicans in the 1st District of Minnesota.”
Demmer had the support of 45 percent of the 253 delegates voting at that point, leading the balloting as he had since the start but still well short of the 60 percent required to be endorsed. Following his speech and speeches by Iraq war veteran Jim Engstrand of Pine Island and retired farmer Allen Quist of St. Peter, 10 more delegates switched to Demmer on the seventh ballot — giving him 49 percent.
Quist picked up eight, leaving him with just under 36 percent of the delegates. Eighteen deserted Engstrand, dropping him to just 15 percent support and prompting him to be removed from the eighth round of balloting.
Down to a two-man contest in the eighth ballot, Quist said his only hope was to attract nearly all of Engstrand’s remaining bloc of 39 supporters.
“I have to get most of it,” Quist said in an interview. “We think that’s certainly possible. I don’t know, these things are always fluid. Having said that, I’d better get back to work.”
Both candidates worked the delegates one-by-one, and ultimately each attracted about half of the 39 — leaving Demmer with more than 55 percent and Quist at 43. Moments later, Quist went to the podium.
“I admire your persistence,” he told his supporters, “but I have decided to withdraw as a candidate.”
They responded with groans and a few shouted “No”. Several left the Minnesota State University ballroom where the convention was held before Demmer took the stage to accept the endorsement.
The vast majority of delegates — only a third of whom supported Demmer on the first ballot — stayed and cheered.
“I feel so appreciative and so humbled to have the opportunity to go and be the torch-bearer, to be the person who’s going to go and take this district back,” Demmer said. “Put back what is supposed to be conservative, common-sense values and take Washington back where it’s supposed to be going.”
In choosing Demmer over the three other major contenders, delegates picked the only one currently holding public office and a man with a strong record of winning elections. He was elected to the Hayfield school board before winning four straight terms in the state House.
While Demmer was critical of Walz — joining the others in attempting to tie the former West High School geography teacher and long-time National Guard member to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco — his rhetoric wasn’t as inflammatory as some of his opponents.
In his initial speech to the delegates before the balloting began, Demmer focused on traditional conservative principles and values, speaking of his opposition to abortion and his belief in family, hard work, honesty and free markets.
“You and I believe it’s not in government we trust, it’s in God we trust,” Demmer said.
He also emphasized his lifelong residency in southern Minnesota and his experience in agriculture, small business ownership and government. And he portrayed himself as the most electable candidate in the convention hall, imploring delegates to “get behind a candidate who can win in November.”
Quist, by contrast, promised to be ahead of national Republican leaders in identifying threats to American freedom and sovereignty. A former state lawmaker, candidate for governor and instructor at Bethany Lutheran College, Quist said President Obama and Democrats in Washington are consciously plotting to end America’s 234-history as an independent nation in favor of joining a world government.
“This is the battle we’re facing today,” Quist said in his opening speech. “And I believe this is the biggest battle America has faced since American began in 1776. This is No. 1.”
Handing the microphone over to his daughter for the final minutes of his allotted time, Quist waved for the delegation to stand as she sang Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American.” In what may have been a foreshadowing of the difficulty he would have in drawing more than a third of the delegates, many stayed seated.
Jim Hagedorn, the son of former 1st District Congressman Tom Hagedorn, was introduced by his father, who called this election possibly the last chance “to reverse the socialistic, risky direction that Obama, Pelosi and Tim Walz have taken this nation in just one year.”
The younger Hagedorn — who moved back to Blue Earth from Washington, D.C., to run against Walz — received just 16 percent of the vote in the first ballot, failed to increase his share in three subsequent ballots and dropped from the race before the fifth.
Engstrand, who returned from Iraq in January, offered the most scorching rhetoric. He called the passage of health care reform by the Democratic Congress “one of the most blatant exhibitions of tyranny in our time.”
An insurance agent prior to be called to active duty, Engstrand pledged to vanquish “the tyranny we see day after day from Tim Walz.”
“We must walk out of this building today a unified conservative base and destroy Tim Walz,” Engstrand said. “Not just beat him, destroy him.”
Following the endorsement of Demmer, Walz campaign manager Richard Carlbom welcomed the start of the general election campaign, saying the two-term congressman would run on his record of helping small businesses, improving benefits for veterans, providing tax cuts to the middle class and making college more affordable.
“Folks in southern Minnesota know Tim Walz works for them,” Carlbom said.