The other Iraq war veteran: Steve Sarvi fights for respect in Congressional contest

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Steve Sarvi first met Rep. John Kline in 2004, at Camp Bondsteel in southern Kosovo. The staff seargent was serving with the Minnesota National Guard, patrolling the border with Macedonia for smugglers. The then-freshman congressman was on a fact-finding mission and stopped by to visit with troops and gauge morale.

What Kline heard from the soldiers were complaints about their inability to utilize educational benefits because they kept getting deployed overseas by the country’s over-extended military. Kline’s response, as Sarvi tells it, was a variation on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous military maxim: you go to war with the army you have.

“While he was sympathetic to the soldiers saying we can’t even go to school using the benefits that we have,” Sarvi recalls, “it was, ‘Well that’s just the situation we find ourselves in.'”

Four years later Sarvi is seeking to oust the three-term incumbent in the Second Congressional District. His military background, including a 2005 tour of duty in Iraq, has Democrats hoping that he’ll prove to be this election season’s version of Tim Walz, the former high school teacher and 24-year-veteran of the National Guard who rose from political obscurity in 2006 to knock off seven-term incumbent Gil Gutknecht.

But at first glance it would appear that Sarvi is facing an improbable political task in the Second Congressional District. After all, Kline — a retired Marine Colonel and Vietnam vet — has won re-election by a whopping 16 points in each of the last two campaign cycles. In a year when Minnesota will feature a Senate race that will almost certainly be among the most expensive in the country, along with a high profile contest to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Ramstad, it could be reasonably argued that time and money would be better deployed elsewhere.

But recent trends in the district suggest that the seat might be more vulnerable than it appears. In 2006, Amy Klobuchar won the Second by a comfortable 10-point margin in the U.S. Senate race. And following the victory of Kevin Dahle in a January special election, DFL’ers now control a majority (17 to 16) of state legislative seats in the district. They’ve picked up 11 posts in just the last two election cycles. The Cook Partisan Voting Index rates the Second +3 for the GOP. By comparison the Sixth Congressional District, where Democrats have mounted vigorous campaigns in each of the last two election cycles, is assessed as +5 for Republicans.

Sarvi argues that Kline’s bedrock conservative ideology is out of synch with the district. A National Journal analysis of voting records earlier this year determined that he was the 20th most conservative member of the House of Representatives, the highest such ranking for a member of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation. “He’s really gone to Washington to support the agenda of the Bush administration,” Sarvi says. “His voting record supports that.”

(Kline’s staff didn’t return three calls seeking comment for this article.)

It’s also widely believed that DFL’ers have failed to mount credible, well-run campaigns against Kline in the last four years. Teresa Daly was a freshman Burnsville City Council member with paltry name recognition who attacked Kline on dubious issues such as his supposed weakness on combating crystal meth. In 2006 Democrats believed they had the ideal candidate in former FBI agent and Time Person of the Year Coleen Rowley. But she flummoxed political observers by failing to raise sufficient cash to seriously threaten the incumbent. “Rowley deliberately ran a sort of unusual campaign–and not the sort of campaign that usually wins elections,” says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, which is in the district.

Sarvi looks like a dream candidate on paper. His 19 years of military experience should blunt Kline’s ability to dismiss the foreign policy chops of his opponent. He also boasts considerable municipal managerial experience, serving as city administrator for Victoria and Watertown, along with three terms as mayor of the latter town.

But right now the 43-year-old father of three is barely on the national radar screen. Neither the Cook Political Report or the Rothenberg Political Report even list the race in their periodic breakdowns of competitive House contests across the country, while Congressional Quarterly deems the seat “safe Republican.” By contrast, fellow Iraq war vet Ashwin Madia immediately drew national attention after winning the DFL endorsement in the Third Congressional District, as evidenced by his inclusion on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list and the visit earlier this month by DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen. However, Van Hollen did offer during a press conference in St. Paul that the Second Congressional District is one of 50 races nationwide that the DCCC is keeping an eye on to see if it might merit investment from the national group. In 2006, the campaign committee raised $22.6 million for 56 candidates.

What does Sarvi have to do to gain credibility? While polling figures and organizational strength will be factors, more than anything the challenger must prove his mettle at fundraising. Sarvi took in a paltry $115,000 (including $10,000 of his own money) in the first quarter of 2008 and had less than $40,000 cash on hand at the end of March. Meanwhile Kline was sitting on a war chest of roughly $500,000. Most politicos figure it will take at least $1 million to make the incumbent sweat.

“It’s all about money,” says Schier. “If by mid-summer we’re not seeing a significant increase in his fundraising totals, it’s hard to see how that will be a competitive race in the fall.”

Earlier this month Sarvi quit his day job to work full time on the campaign. Much of his energy in the coming weeks will be devoted to raising money. “Are we ever going to have as much money as he does?” Sarvi asks. “I don’t know. We’ve got several scenarios to run a credible race on different amounts of money.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon the challenger met with roughly 20 would-be constituents at a house party in Farmington. Sarvi told the gathering about his background in municipal government and the military. He talked of helping organize a mayoral election in a small town in Kosovo. When Sarvi’s tour of duty was coming to an end, he recalled, the newly elected mayor offered him a free house if he would stick around. Although that offer didn’t sway him, the elected official came back with another offer a week later. “We’ll give you a cow too,” she told Sarvi.

When the fledgling politician opened the discussion to questions, a broad range of topics were covered. In response to question about the death penalty, Sarvi was unequivocal. “Our country puts people down like dogs and that’s wrong,” he said. “I don’t think as a nation that should be one of our values.” When asked about skyrocketing college tuition costs, he deftly related an anecdote about his niece recently graduating from the University of Minnesota saddled with $61,000 in debt.

But on other topics Sarvi seemed less assured. When queried about whether No Child Left Behind should be scrapped, he demurred. “I’ve heard both sides,” Sarvi said. More perplexing was his answer to a question about whether intelligent design–which few outside the religious right consider a legitimate scientific theory–should be taught in schools. “I kind of believe in equal time,” he offered, arguing that the decision should be left up to local school boards.

If Sarvi is ultimately going to be successful he’ll need to win over a lot of voters like Jim Edwards, who hosted the fundraising event. Edwards describes himself as a Republican who has voted for Kline in the past, but opted for Klobuchar in the 2006 Senate contest. He cites the economy as his chief concern, with the Iraq war and education trailing close behind. “I see the war just being a huge drain to the economy,” says Edwards, a project manager at Toro, the lawnmower manufacturing company based in Bloomington. “I think we’re doing everything wrong right now.”

Edwards is fed up with the incumbent’s lockstep Republican voting record. “There’s a lack of substance there,” he says of Kline. “I think he’s just a rubber stamp.”