In his first nine years as State Senator for District 41 and Chair of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, Geoff Michel was a conservative voice in a Democratic majority. As the Republican representative for the southwestern suburbs of Edina and Bloomington in the Twin Cities, Michel's economic platform always took center stage in his political narrative.
"My brand is that I've really tried to focus on the budget and tax issues," Michel says. "Coinciding with the recession and having a really bad economy, I think the fiscal issues, anything to do with budgets and money, have really risen to the top. I'd say that's true for Republicans and kind of true for everybody."
Michel's economic message resonated with Minnesota voters in 2010 when Republicans took control of the senate for the first time in three decades. As the newly appointed interim Senate Deputy Majority Leader, Michel promoted tax breaks to fuel the lagging Minnesota economy and growing state budget deficit.
"I think that in Minnesota our taxes are too high," he says. "I want Minnesota to be the best place to start and grow a business so that families will move here and stay here."
Though Michel says he would prefer to grow the Minnesota economy by lowering taxes, he says his position fosters "a real philosophical conflict and debate at our state capitol."
This debate reached a stalemate last summer when top Republican lawmakers, including Michel, and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton failed to reach a budgetary compromise that would avert a state government shut down.
"I was involved in a lot of heated negotiations and discussions with the governor, house and senate leadership," Michel says. "It was very frustrating."
The 20-day Minnesota government impasse foreshadowed Republican and Democratic budgetary clashes and risks of shutdowns in Washington months later. Indeed, the national political climate mirrors Minnesota's Democratic executive leadership and Republican congressional majority. Faced with the same issues on a larger scale, national Republican leaders' narratives echo Geoff Michel's own narrative.
Republicans and the economic election
A January 2012 Gallup Poll named jobs, the national debt and continuing economic decline as Americans' top three economic worries. Recognizing these anxieties as the staples of the 2012 presidential election, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney centers his campaign on economic reform. Using the same language as Minnesota State Senator Geoff Michel, Romney's campaign states, "His plan seeks to reduce taxes, spending, regulation, and government programs... In short, it is a plan to get America back to work."
Romney's economic message is exactly what Minnesota Republican legislative candidates want to hear, according to public affairs professional Maureen Shaver. Shaver served as a senior advisor and key strategist to Republican elected officials, including former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. She lobbied at the Minnesota legislature for various corporations and trade associations for more than 25 years and was named Minnesota Law and Politics first Top Lobbyist in 2000.
"The narrative that the presidential candidate will have will be important to these local Minnesota races," she says. "How the narrative is shaped by the leading candidates, whether it's Romney, Santorum, Gingrich or even Ron Paul, matters more for these guys."
With its emphasis on jobs and Democrats' failures to reduce unemployment rates and deficits, Shaver says that Romney's economic narrative parallels the narratives of Republican candidates in Minnesota's congressional race.
"Most Republicans in Minnesota will run on the economic message," she says. "They will be looking at the national level that they don't screw that up and focus too much on these other issues. If Mitt Romney is the candidate, he will be the most successful in bringing back the main message. He will go right back to the economy. That's what Americans care about in the end."
Yet 'other issues' are interrupting the economic issues that Shaver says Americans care about most.
"We can cut government; we can grow the economy. But unless the basic building blocks of our society are strong, then we will not be able to sustain it," presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said March 2 while campaigning in Cincinnati.
Santorum's narrative as the social conservative has led him to victory in seven states in the G.O.P. primaries, including Minnesota. Shaver says this success can be attributed to Santorum's narrative as the alternative candidate to Romney, the candidate who is unafraid to discuss controversial social and cultural topics.
"Ironically, Romney won four years ago because he was the alternative to John McCain," Shaver says. "Santorum was the narrower alternative to the frontrunner."
Shaver says Santorum's message, and the media attention it receives, distorts local politicians' efforts to campaign on the issues tailored to their own communities.
"Getting off track with contraception doesn't help anybody," she says. "It makes it difficult for these local guys."
Returning to their roots
And the local guys agree. In fact, Senator Michel says he avoids social issues altogether.
"I kind of think that the more time we spend on issues that we're divided on, the less time we have to spend on the other issues," he says. "We spend our time fighting about abortion or gay marriage, but Minnesotans are about 50-50 on those issues. I just don't think we should spend a lot of time on the 50-50."
Michel says he attributes his past reelection success to his ability to understand his voters and the two issues they care about most: education and taxes.
"People don't just vote based on party," he says. "A lot of people who I work for would call themselves Independents or even Democrats, but they split their ticket. They vote for the person. I know because these are my neighbors and my friends. Edina wants legislators to focus on the budget and to focus on schools."
Shaver says political candidates' success ultimately depends on their abilities to form a clear and succinct narrative based on local issues.
"Legislative races are really focused on finding the candidates who fit their districts and work hard," she says. "The reality for these people is that Republicans are able to recruit the right candidate, then they will have a very strong chance."
Candidates, Voters and the Media
But is recruiting the right candidate all that it takes to win an election? Geoff Michel says no... and the media is the reason why.
I'm not happy with the media these days," he says, "They are searching for a good story, and for them, a good story is conflict or a flood or a fire or somebody being extreme rather than the nuts and bolts and even some of the more boring stuff about the legislative process."
A flood, a fire or somebody being extreme...like Minnesota's own Michele Bachmann.
"Michele Bachman was in the news most of the last year," Michel says. "There's nothing moderate or balanced about Michele Bachmann. She knows it and she plays to it. She knows how to get media coverage. I don't think she could get elected in Edina."
Super PACs at the state level
While the media's integral role in political life infiltrates candidates' narratives from local to state to national campaigns, Super PACs from Romney's "Restore Our Future" to Santorum's "Red White and Blue Fund" to Obama's "Priorities USA" further shape voters' perceptions of candidates. The influence of these and other PACs extends beyond the national races.
"Alliance for a Better Minnesota is a large independent expenditure pack," Shaver says. "It provided significant resources for Governor Dayton when he ran."
The Minnesota-based Super PAC "Alliance for a Better Minnesota" aims to "educate the public about the negative effects of certain policies, politicians and organizations on their quality of life using earned, paid and new media techniques." Though the nonprofit claims no political affiliation, Shaver says its intentions are clear.
"Governor Dayton's ex-wife is a significant contributor," she says. "She's pretty determined to give him a Democratic majority in the legislature."
Shaver says Minnesota Republicans receive generous funding from their own Super PACs, though she says they are not as developed at the local level. Despite varying purposes and spending amounts, Shaver says the importance of independent donors is indisputable, in either local or national elections.
"Independent expenditure money is flowing both ways," she says. "A lot depends on how much money is flowing toward these candidates and that will affect who wins."
An uncertain Minnesota future
As for her predictions on whether Republicans will be able to maintain a majority in the Minnesota legislature in 2012, Shaver looks beyond the media and campaign spending to the core nature and spirit of Minnesota voters.
"In Minnesota, we like our split government," she says. "It's been a very long time since we've given one party control. It's the nature of our culture. We like that system of checks and balances. It's frustrating to people, but we do. One of the houses will retain Republican maybe both."
Though less convinced that Republicans will maintain the majority, Geoff Michel says he agrees that Minnesotans are unwilling to commit to one party for too long.
"I think it's going to be really close," he says. "I think there's a natural kind of pendulum that kind of swings back and forth. In 2010, it swung pretty strongly to the Republican side. I kind of feel it starting to swing back the other way."
With 10 years under his belt, Michel's acknowledgement that Republicans might not be able to maintain their majority power curiously comes just in time for his announcement that he will not seek reelection in 2012.
"Annie, our four daughters and I have been discussing our options since the state shutdown last summer," Michel revealed in a press release on March 5. "It's time for me to return their support and focus on a family future that is getting busier every year and may include four college tuitions."
But even after addressing his own financial needs and announcing the end of his term, Michel continued to sell his economic brand.
"I plan to finish strong and focus on the fundamental fiscal and economic concerns facing our state during the remaining months of this legislative session," he concluded.
Michel's commitment to economic concerns at a time when he is not seeking votes suggests that he genuinely cares about the issues affecting his voters. Or maybe he is just a politician who knows that 2012 might not be the only year with an economic election.
Elizabeth Schulze is a senior in the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. If you have something to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of politics in your area, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.
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