02/11/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Minnesota GOP Senate Candidates Hold Private Debate At Members-Only Club


Several Republicans hoping to unseat Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) hashed out their differences and argued over policy issues during a debate Monday. The forum, however, was not open to the vast majority of Minnesota voters -- instead, it was held at a pricey, members-only GOP club.

The debate at the Minnesota Freedom Club featured four of the declared candidates for the Republican Senate nomination: financial executive Mike McFadden, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, state Rep. Jim Abeler and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg. The club thanked the candidates for attending on Monday in a tweet.

Freedom Club members must pay a minimum fee of $3,000 to join the nonprofit organization, and must be sponsored by an existing member or staff member, according to the club's website. Some Freedom Club events have been closed to the media in the past, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Freedom Club did not respond to multiple requests from The Huffington Post Monday to find out if this week's debate was open to the press or the public.

When asked about McFadden's participation in this private event, Tom Erickson, the candidate's deputy campaign manager, said: "I believe that Freedom Club events are open to members of the Freedom Club and their guests. You'll have to check with the Freedom Club on what their policy is regarding media at their meetings. My understanding is that no one in the media showed up to cover the forum today."

Democrats in Minnesota have been hammering the Republican candidates for weeks for agreeing to attend the exclusive debate. On Monday, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party did so again.

"What we’re really learning from Republicans' choice to do this debate is that they just don't get it," said the party's communications director, Ellen Perrault, in an email to supporters. "McFadden, Ortman, Abeler and Dahlberg don't get what real people have to spend their money on and just how much you could buy for $3,000."

Democrats have particularly gone after McFadden, charging that he has ducked other public debates.

Erickson told HuffPost that McFadden had missed one debate due to a family commitment and had participated in two other candidate forums -- a Minnesota GOP State Central Committee meeting on Oct. 26 and an Elephant Club Senate candidate forum on Dec. 5 -- and would consider future debate requests as they were received.

"Mike is very busy meeting with voters every day and we're focused on beating Al Franken," Erickson said. "We'll gladly debate Al Franken whenever he's ready."

McFadden significantly leads the GOP primary field in fundraising, with almost $1.7 million in cash on hand at the end of last year, according to his filing with the Federal Election Commission. His closet competitor, Ortman, had about $115,000 in available cash, per her report. Franken, meanwhile, reported having $4.8 million in the bank.

Ortman, who attended the Freedom Club's private debate on Monday, reportedly considers herself to be the grass-roots candidate in the race, in contrast with the well-funded McFadden. She placed first in the GOP straw poll for Senate last week.

“I’m a bottom-up type of candidate and he’s a top-down kind of candidate,” Ortman said last month, according to the Associated Press. “I don't think you can helicopter in on Election Day with a whole bunch of money and think you've won the minds and hearts of the voters.”

The Freedom Club did not endorse a candidate following Monday's forum, the website Politics.mn reported. The club's federal political action committee supported Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in his 2008 reelection race against Franken. Coleman lost that race by just 312 votes.



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