Trailing Klobuchar, Bills steps up criticism on campaign trailby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Every public opinion poll on Minnesota's U.S. Senate race released so far shows Republican state Rep. Kurt Bills far behind Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar.
Over the past few days, the Bills campaign has started using more aggressive language to criticize Klobuchar. In one example, Bills' campaign manager Mike Osskopp accused Klobuchar of running a "Mafia-style protection racket" during the government-led bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009.
Out campaigning last week, Bills sounded optimistic that he could overcome the 29-point gap between him and Klobuchar in the latest Star Tribune poll.
"Minnesota is known for late-breaking races, too," Bills said. "I think there's a little bit of a history there. So we don't get discouraged."
But political scientist Steve Smith at Washington University in St. Louis says Bills has very little money and very little time left before Election Day on Nov. 6.
"His options are really quite limited," Smith said, "so he's going to be looking for high-impact ads, and they're likely to be very, very negative because they're the ones that tend to move voters the most."
But Bills' campaign has raised much less money than Klobuchar's. And while Klobuchar has started running positive television ads, it's not clear Bills has the resources to respond. Instead, his campaign has been issuing news releases attacking Klobuchar.
And those attacks have gone beyond just the senator. One target is Twin Cities car dealer Paul Walser. Walser says he traditionally supports Republicans but endorsed Klobuchar in a campaign ad because she helped keep his dealerships open during the auto bailout.
The Bills campaign called Walser the beneficiary of "crony capitalism." Walser said he is not taking the charge personally because of where Bills stands in the race.
The state lawmaker is "clearly a long way behind and, you know, literally has no chance to win this thing," Walser said, "so I think that probably invites probably a more desperate environment to try and get some traction in his campaign."
Bills started the campaign with a host of disadvantages. He is currently in his first term in the state House and has little statewide name recognition.
Klobuchar's approval rating has been near 60 percent, a number that may have scared away a number of better-known Republicans from entering the race. Bills won the nomination with the backing of libertarian-minded supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul R-Texas, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination. Then Bills endorsed Mitt Romney for president, alienating him from some of Paul's supporters.
Marianne Stebbins, who chaired Paul's Minnesota campaign, said that since winning the nomination, Bills has tried too hard to run as what she calls "a conventional Republican."
"I think the only path to victory against Klobuchar would have been for someone to run a very independent, nontraditional campaign going after those independents and disaffected Democrats on the civil liberties issues," Stebbins said.
Bills has also continued to work at his day job, teaching a high school class in the morning before heading out on the trail.
Smith, the political scientist, said that decision won't help Bills in the campaign.
"The fact is that the modern statewide race in a state like Minnesota really requires a full time effort," he said. "Full time in both fundraising and in reaching out to voters."
As of the last report in late July, Bills had raised about $400,000 and had less than $6,000 in the bank.
Klobuchar, who had a six-year head start in fundraising, has raised more than $6 million, with more than $5 million left for campaigning.
Bills said his fundraising numbers reflect his populist, grass-roots campaign.
"We're working as hard as we can to fill them to what we need," he said. "But there's not going to be a lot of rich elites who run to me donating the money the way that I talk."
Smith suggested that Republicans may pay a price all the way down the ballot after selecting a weak candidate in the only statewide race this year.
"They're not benefiting from the ability of the top candidate to generate excitement and bring out a crowd," he said.
State Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge did not return calls when asked to comment on the Bills campaign.
MPR reporter Tom Scheck contributed to this report.
- Morning Edition, 10/08/2012, 7:20 a.m.