Four years ago, when he was running for governor, Tom Emmer seemed like the next Michele Bachmann. A year ago, when he started his campaign, liberal media outlets said he was. But now that the Minnesotan is actually running for her seat in Congress, Emmer has changed his style.
When Emmer narrowly lost his gubernatorial bid to Democrat Mark Dayton in 2010, the tumultuous campaign thrust the former state representative into the national spotlight as a bombastic conservative who frequently attracted protesters and even claimed that Minnesota had the right to nullify federal laws.
And when he announced last year that he would run for Bachmann's seat after her retirement announcement, it seemed inevitable that he would grab the same kind of headlines that turned Bachmann into a rare House member with a national roster of tea-party supporters — and made her a fundraising tool and an electoral target for Democrats. Mother Jones said the "far-right" Emmer would be "the next Michele Bachmann." The Colbert Report lampooned a bizarre ad he did for an exterior and remodeling company.
But on Tuesday night, Emmer won the Republican primary for Bachmann's seat in what Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant in the area, called an "amazingly drama-free" race. Emmer won't be a moderate in Congress, assuming he wins the heavily Republican 6th District in November. But the way he ran his primary race against Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah has left other Republicans surprised at his less divisive style.
"If you would have taken the Tom Emmer of 2010 and compared him to Michele Bachmann, you would have found they were two peas in a pod," said Peppin, who worked for Emmer's 2010 primary opponent, a more moderate former state legislator named Marty Seifert. "The Tom Emmer of 2014, you would never doubt his conservatism, but I think his approach will be different than Michele's. I think it will be, perhaps, a more refined approach."
Peppin said Emmer has done a good job of showing up to events in the area and reaching out to Republicans around this district, including him. Even Jennifer DeJournett, the president of a conservative women's group that endorsed Sivarajah, praised the way Emmer has networked with Republicans throughout the district, calling him "someone you'd want to go and have a beer with."
In 2010, both Emmer's tone and his content provoked strong negative reactions. He was so outspoken against same-sex marriage that when Target donated to a group that ran ads supporting Emmer's business positions, the backlash prompted the company's CEO to apologize for getting involved in the governor's race. Emmer's views on the minimum wage were equally controversial: He said the wage for waiters and waitresses who get tips should be lowered and claimed that some bring home $100,000 per year; a protester later dumped thousands of pennies on him at a campaign event.
Emmer said the major difference between 2010 and 2014 is that he's farther down the ballot. This cycle, he sees his job as helping drive Republican turnout throughout the area rather than attract attention for himself, he said.
"This time, unlike last time, I'm not running for statewide office," he said. "In that case, you are the focus of attention. In this case, I am a member of the Republican team."
Emmer hasn't gotten any less conservative or changed his positions on any issues, but he has changed his approach, he said. And now Emmer doesn't have to attract much attention. After his high-profile 2010 run and spending two years as a radio-show host, Emmer said he is more well-known and doesn't have to prove his conservative bona fides.
There's also less demand for an outspoken, tea-party-style candidate now than in 2010, Peppin said. The district's Republican base wasn't necessarily fed up with Bachmann, but "a change will probably be welcomed by most people," Peppin said.
Emmer may have political reasons to take a softer tone, but even Peppin — who said he "worked [his] butt off to beat him" in 2010 — believes it's genuine.
"There's a demonstrable difference in his outlook, his approach, and his attitude toward this race compared to when he ran for governor," Peppin said. "I believe what he says."
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.