Down in the polls and dogged by a series of missteps, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer is pressing the restart button on his campaign.
Longtime adviser Tom Mason is out, a new campaign manager will soon come in, and a "kitchen cabinet" may be created to bring discipline to the campaign, according to Republican sources close to the campaign.
The reorganization comes just days before Tuesday's primary, when a three-way brawl among DFLers will produce a battle-tested nominee to face Emmer.
Despite a months-long span in which Emmer has had no primary opponent, he also continues to lag in the money race -- each of his three DFL opponents has raised more in campaign funds.
"It's been a tough month, for sure," said Emmer's deputy campaign manager, Bill Walsh.
Emmer has made a weak showing in polls when matched against Democrats Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza, who will vie in Tuesday's primary.
Recent polls, including one last week from the Star Tribune, indicated that any of the three would beat him in a general election fight. A KSTP/Survey USA poll released Thursday also showed Emmer with only soft support among traditional Republican bases, such as abortion foes and gun owners.
Emmer has had some well publicized problems, which have muddied his message of low taxes and small government.
He inadvertently set off a firestorm last month when he suggested changes to the minimum wage that restaurant servers receive. Two weeks ago, he proposed a veterans' program that already exists in law and which he actually voted against as a legislator.
His campaign has been smacked hard, as gay activists around the country beat up on Target Corp. for contributions it gave to a group that ran ads in Emmer's favor.
Meanwhile, a DFL and labor-friendly group has run a continuous stream of tough ads against Emmer, including one about his 20-year-old DWI charges. Kelliher, Dayton and Entenza have trained most of their fire on him rather than on one another.
Republican sources close to the Emmer campaign said that changes needed to be made before the general election contest starts in earnest.
Walsh on Friday confirmed that Mason, who has worked with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, is "going to step back."
Mason said he leaves the campaign "disappointed" and "heartsick" because he could not offer more. He spent 50 hours with the campaign last week, he said, and had to tend to his other businesses.
"This is a perfect time to do this," said Mason, a public affairs executive.
Mason's departure is far from the only change in the works.
Five Republican sources said Emmer is looking to hire a new campaign manager and has put out feelers to Cullen Sheehan, who managed former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's 2008 campaign. Sheehan, who now works for the Minnesota Senate, also worked for the Republican National Committee for a year and is a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. Republicans say he is trusted for his experience and acumen both in Minnesota and in national Republican circles.
People with knowledge of the Emmer campaign said there has long been concern about it.
"I think [Emmer] started hearing a drumbeat," said one source close to the campaign. Another source with long campaign experience described recent actions as an "intervention."
Among the problems: Two Republicans described serious tensions between Emmer and his running mate, Annette Meeks, a former congressional staffer who left a think tank job to join the campaign. Two sources said that at one point, Emmer was not returning Meeks' calls.
Emmer's campaign has already had two managers -- David FitzSimmons led the campaign through the GOP convention this spring and state Rep. Mark Buesgens took over after FitzSimmons left to work for the Republican Party. Neither had led a statewide campaign before signing on with Emmer.
Sources said that Emmer was loyal to the people in the campaign and resisted anyone else coming on. But they said that before the general election fight starts Wednesday, it became clear the organization needed changes.
A Republican strategist watching the campaign said the word of changes was "a desperately needed good-news story."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164