In 1994, Rod Grams was the ultimate symbol of the Republican revolution--an obscure ex-anchorman who stunned Beltway pundits, a bedrock conservative sent to the Senate by a once-liberal state. In 1999, Grams represents a new GOP breed: the Vulnerable Incumbent.
Grams now has the lowest approval ratings of any senator; polls suggest his fierce partisan record has alienated Minnesota's independent-minded electorate. Just yesterday, he suffered a new setback when GOP leaders cut a deal on milk prices that will hurt Minnesota dairy farmers. His reelection campaign has staggered through two major shake-ups this year--as well as accusations that one was engineered by the senator's longtime aide and girlfriend. And Minnesota officials are now investigating whether his troubled son received a pass from police officers who found marijuana in his car in July.
So with national polls reflecting discontent with the Republican-controlled Congress, Grams is emblematic of the kind of GOP revolutionary whose seat could be ripe for the picking. First, though, the state's Democrats need to pick someone to do the picking.
As Congress prepares to adjourn and the 2000 campaign begins for real, the disarray in Minnesota's Democratic camp is making the Grams operation look like a well-oiled machine. Five Democratic challengers have already entered the race. Former representative Timothy J. Penny, who would be the favorite, is hemming and hawing about joining them. And lawyer Michael Ciresi, a political newcomer who is the only candidate with a serious bankroll, has put his campaign on hold until he can finish a patent infringement case over an angioplasty device.
Republicans hold a 55 to 45 advantage in the Senate, but Democrats think they can take it back by portraying such Class of '94 incumbents as Grams, Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as right-wing extremists. If they can't topple Grams, though, it's hard to see how they can recapture Capitol Hill.
"You can't get much more vulnerable than Rod Grams," said Steven Smith, a University of Minnesota political science professor. "But you can't beat somebody with nobody."
Grams, 51, is about as close as there is to an accidental senator--a former news reader at stations in Minneapolis, Rockford, Ill., Wausau, Wis., and Great Falls, Mont., a somewhat shy and ill-at-ease midwesterner who never got a college degree. He had no political experience before he ran for Congress in 1992, scoring a huge upset after the Democratic incumbent got caught up in the House Bank scandal. And he was a big underdog when he ran for Senate in 1994, riding the GOP tide to a shocking come-from-behind victory.
Grams has not attracted much notice in Washington, but he has been a GOP stalwart, pushing to privatize Social Security, enact a $500-per-child tax credit, abolish the Department of Energy and ban what critics call "partial birth" abortions. While Minnesota voters are probably the least predictable in the nation--electing Grams in 1994, reelecting liberal professor Paul D. Wellstone (D) to the Senate in 1996 and choosing libertarian wrestler Jesse Ventura (Reform) as governor in 1998--polls indicate that they may not take kindly to Grams's consistent support for this agenda.
But Grams believes the state that sent Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale to Washington is not as liberal as it used to be. "We all know this will be a hard race, but am I vulnerable? I don't think so," Grams said. "Right now, people think I'm advocating to get rid of the government, like I want to throw Grandma on the street. But we'll set the record straight. I want a government that's lean and mean, like a business, and I think most Minnesotans do, too."
So far, though, the Grams campaign has lurched from meltdown to meltdown. In January, when the senator had a paltry $140,000 in his campaign account, he brought in two Washington hands: David Carney to revamp his campaign and Sam Dawson to run his Hill office. The campaign then recovered to raise $1.2 million by June 30, soothing nerves at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But Grams fired Carney, Dawson and three other aides in August, baffling Republican insiders and infuriating NRSC Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"I guess he was afraid his campaign was going too well," groused one GOP source.
Republican sources believe the firings were demanded by Chris Gunhus, a campaign aide who was the senator's chief of staff for five years. Grams said the shake-up had nothing to do with efforts by Carney and Dawson to get him to take Gunhus off the payroll, that he just wanted his campaign to focus more on grass roots and less on Washington. But Grams refused to discuss his relationship with Gunhus, who has been telling associates they are engaged.
Gunhus was divorced in 1994; Grams divorced in 1996; the saga has created serious turmoil in GOP ranks. Grams kept a low profile during President Clinton's impeachment, but he did vote to convict, and even though everyone seems to agree that most voters are tired of political sex talk, the campaign rhetoric is starting to get ugly. "We don't need a sex scandal to beat Rod Grams, but it is hypocritical for him to stand there as a family values guy," said Michael Erlandson, chairman of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Grams grumbled that if the Democrats want to take cheap shots, they can. "This whole story just strengthens our Republican base," said Richard Tostenson, his new campaign manager. "It's time to move on."
But now Grams is scrambling to deal with a new personal crisis. In July, he asked the Anoka County sheriff to look for his 21-year-old son, Morgan, who was on probation for underage drinking and driving. Sheriff's deputies pulled him over that night, and found 10 bags of marijuana in his car, including one under his seat. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the chief deputy then drove him home in the front seat of a squad car, even though one of his passengers, a 17-year-old, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge.
The sheriff's office has denied giving any preferential treatment, and the senator said in a statement Sunday that "when I learned he might be in trouble, I asked the authorities to find him--and that's all I asked for."
For all the hubbub, Grams's campaign can still take hope from the unfolding spectacle of a Democratic circular firing squad. So far, four candidates are vying for the endorsement of the DFL convention in June: former U.S. attorney David Lillehaug, physician Steve Miles and state Sens. Steve Kelley and Jerry Janezich. But Ciresi--a multimillionaire litigator who sued the tobacco industry in Minnesota and Union Carbide Corp. in Bhopal, India--has decided not to compete for the party endorsement, though he will fight in the Democratic primary in September. Penny--a popular centrist who has been a key adviser to Ventura--may also run in the primary without seeking the party nod. So Democrats will be shooting at each other for a while before they can focus their fire on Grams.
"It's very frustrating, because the longer this drags out, the stronger Grams will get," Erlandson said. "We're lucky he's so weak . . . and I guess he's lucky we're not unified."
A Democratic poll in May found that only 36 percent of the state's voters thought Grams was doing a good or excellent job, and that only 32 percent would definitely vote for him. But except for Penny, the potential challengers are a fairly anonymous bunch. And Penny, who quit Congress in 1995 out of frustration with Washington, is a notoriously unenthusiastic campaigner, and an even less enthusiastic fund-raiser.
Ciresi does have the resources to mount a serious challenge, though a recent press release announcing his candidacy included the odd disclaimer that he "is currently immersed in a case which will take priority over campaigning for the Senate seat until it is resolved."
"Mr. Grams was part of a revolution, but all revolutions run their course," Ciresi said. "This race is going to be about what he's done over the last five years."
In about 30 interviews here, few voters knew much about Grams, and few of those who did liked him. Not one of them said they cared about his personal life, but even some of his GOP supporters complained about his politics.
"I'll probably vote for him, but he's a bit too conservative for me," said Ruth Hartl, 71, a retired teacher. "I don't want to stone cripples, you know?"
Jason Bowsman, a veterans activist and a lifelong Republican, said he may abandon the GOP for the first time next fall. It's not even that he thinks Grams is too conservative; Bowsman would like to reinstate the poll tax. He just doesn't think Grams has been much of anything.
"He hasn't done his job," Bowsman said. "And if I'm saying that, then he's in a lot of trouble." But then he paused for a moment to think.
"Who else is running?"
CAPTION: Sen. Rod Grams