Genevieve Ross, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ron Paul might be striking out in his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, but the activist energy his campaign unleashed in Minnesota is positioning one of his followers as the party's unlikely favorite to take on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in November.
Kurt Bills is a rookie state representative from Rosemount and a high school economics teacher. Until he made a late and unexpected entry into the race in March, Bills was never mentioned as a Republican prospect to challenge Democratic incumbent Klobuchar. But in recent weeks, an increasing number of Republicans have pegged him as the frontrunner to get the pivotal party endorsement at the GOP state convention in May.
"I think we're seeing Kurt Bills picking up some real steam in the last few weeks," said Noah Rouen, a Republican political consultant who hasn't endorsed a Senate candidate. Bills recently unveiled endorsements from more than 30 Republican colleagues in the Legislature, far outpacing the backing touted so far by the other two serious GOP Senate candidates.
Before Bills got in, Republican buzz was building around the campaign of Pete Hegseth. The young, handsome Army veteran from Stillwater has ties to national Republicans and a service record that includes stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He previously served as national spokesman for a veterans group that advocated the 2007 military surge in Iraq, and appeared best positioned to tap into a national GOP donor base that will be vital to helping offset Klobuchar's huge financial advantage.
By contrast, the amiable, sleepy-eyed Bills looks and comes across as every bit the suburban public schoolteacher and wrestling coach that he is. But he's also a Ron Paul supporter, having endorsed the libertarian Texas congressman prior to Minnesota's presidential caucus in early February. Paul has since returned the favor, endorsing Bills for Senate. That matters, because in recent weeks many of Paul's well-organized supporters have been elected as delegates and alternates to the state convention — in other words, the people who will make the GOP endorsement.
"We're hearing that 40, maybe 45 percent of delegates, maybe more than that are going to be Ron Paul people," said Mike Osskopp, Bills' campaign manager. "It's going to be a significant number."
A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Republican Party said it was difficult to say how many Paul backers would be among the convention delegates and alternates, but their ascent has been the subject of much recent talk in party circles. Last weekend, Minnesota's Republican National Committeewoman Pat Anderson published several tweets about Paul backers "sweeping" delegate elections at several of last Saturday's district conventions.
"Ron Paul Libertarians took the Republicans out of the Minnesota Republican Party today," Katie Nadeau, a party activist, tweeted that day.
Hegseth and Dan Severson, the other Republican candidate, have sought to marginalize Bills by raising questions about Paul. It's a strategy that risks alienating Paul's supporters, but in recent days Hegseth has become more aggressive on the subject.
"What we say very openly and blatantly is that the Ron Paul establishment is taking control of the party," Hegseth said. "They've handpicked Kurt Bills, and they're hoping they can take over the party. We want to give voice to the people who are being boxed out, people who've worked for the party for 10 or 20 years and for the first time they're not going to be delegates."
Severson, a former state representative from Sauk Rapids whose views align more closely with Hegseth, said Paul's libertarian views wouldn't sit well with a larger sample of Republican voters. "He supports legal marijuana, he's not that big on the marriage amendment and he's not that opposed to Iran getting a nuclear weapon," said Severson, who ran as the Republican candidate for Minnesota secretary of state in 2010 but lost to the Democratic incumbent.
For his part, Bills said he believes he can appeal to both Paul supporters and Republicans with qualms about him.
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