Chris Dahlberg’s dark horse bid falls short

State PoliticsRepublicans endorsed investment banker Mike McFadden for U.S. Senate at their state convention early Saturday afternoon. With a well-financed campaign and the blessing of national Republicans, McFadden was the candidate many Democrats expected to see running against U.S. Sen. Al Franken this November. But the headline obscures a compelling story that unfolded late last night at the convention hall in Rochester.

Starting with the first ballot and all Friday night, the leader in GOP balloting was neither the well-financed McFadden, nor last year’s straw poll winner State Sen. Julianne Ortman who many believed would win the endorsement. St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth led the first eight ballots. The grassroots dark horse making his first run for statewide office shocked the establishment in doing so, and quickly talk of a surprise Dahlberg win consumed the late hours of Friday and early Saturday morning.

Unfortunately for Dahlberg, he and his delegates allowed the convention to recess for a few hours sleep. At the time he led McFadden with nearly 54 percent (60 percent is needed to win endorsement).

The few hours of down time allowed the passions of Dahlberg’s surprise show of strength to cool. Delegates realized that a contested primary (McFadden had vowed to run anyway) was avoidable if McFadden was endorsed.

Chris Dahlberg had done everything right for an unknown candidate, having impressed with his speech and groundwork, and vowing to honor the endorsement (a peculiar tradition for both major parties in Minnesota). But those four hours of down time sapped all his momentum and McFadden had him beat in ballots 9 and 10.

Still, Chris Dahlberg’s p

erformance bears mentioning. When he announced his bid for Senate last year, few even in northern Minnesota politics gave him much of a chance. My own impression of him was as a friendly, middle-of-the-road, fairly nonpartisan local politico who would struggle to gain attention. Well, he did.

As a liberal, I can’t necessarily get inside the head of a Republican delegate. But looking at this from the outside, I’m a little disappointed they didn’t stick with Dahlberg. The DFL has thick playbooks ready for McFadden and Ortman. But no one had counted on Dahlberg. His pleasant demeanor and aw-shucks “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” charm would have been a difficult target for mud-hurlers. Sure, he might not have prevailed in an expensive primary, but he would have changed the game. I think for Republicans to have a chance against the favored Franken, they need to disrupt the status quo.

Chris Dahlberg might not have won this time, but his performance and the impression he left with Republican activists have probably earned him another chance at GOP politics in the future.


This piece was cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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