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Minnesota's Republican Party is a political enterprise in need of a turnaround, and its first opportunity could come when the gavel falls to open the legislative session Tuesday.
Republican legislators who ran both houses for the past two years have been relegated to the minority, following a disastrous election performance in November.
Now, the session and its thorny, perennial issues -- the budget and continuing deficits, the debate over gay marriage, the state's tax policy, federal involvement in health care, perhaps even a battle over guns -- could, in the eyes of some, offer the GOP a pathway back into the voters' affections.
"We like the opportunities that we're going to have to point out the differences," said Rep. Kurt Daudt, the incoming House Republican leader, who lives in rural Isanti County. "We think you're going to see stark contrasts between what liberal Democrats believe and what conservatives believe."
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, incoming Senate minority leader, said that while they lost the election, "philosophically, we don't think our ideas are wrong." Republicans' task, he said, is doing "a better job of communicating those ideas."
That includes holding down taxes and spending, promoting free-market solutions in health care and other areas, making the state more business-friendly and retaining the traditional legal definition of marriage.
The ideas may not prevail, particularly since the DFL-controlled Legislature has DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to work with. But the GOP leaders believe they can push the debate in their direction and draw sharp lines between two polar positions.
Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, said he expects the GOP to de-emphasize social issues, which it can no longer prevail on, and focus on the "hardy perennial" of fighting tax hikes. "That unifies Republicans, and it has the potential to appeal to a broad number of voters," Schier said.
Former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who has experience winning -- and losing -- majorities in the House, said the GOP minority must hold DFL leaders accountable and offer positive alternatives from a conservative perspective. "The state does not need two liberal parties," Sviggum said.
The minority's greatest leverage point, he said, is the capital projects bill -- a popular goodie bag that DFLers will need Republican votes on to reach the required super-majority. Sviggum expects Republicans to hold off on this "bonding" bill until late in the session, using it to influence other bills in the process. "You don't let it out of the box right away," Sviggum said.
A familiar place
Being in the minority is a familiar role for Minnesota Republicans: In the four decades since the 1972 election, the GOP has been the minority caucus 95 percent of the time in the Senate and 70 percent in the House.
But in recent years, the more conservative GOP has had a strong run -- eight years under GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty from 2003-2011, GOP control of the House from 1999-2007, and the breakthrough election of 2010, when the GOP won the House and Senate.
"The reality is, our state is fairly divided," said Hann. "The arguments that we have and the point of view that we have is held by a very large percentage, and in some years, the majority."
While incoming House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, has suggested that the election repudiated Republican budget policies, GOP leaders are hardly recanting.
Hann and Daudt believe the GOP stand for boosting the economy by opposing statewide tax hikes has been validated by forecasts showing growing state revenues, although DFLers attribute that growth to other factors.
Republican leaders plan to continue arguing against tax increases. "Certainly Minnesotans are living within their means, and the state should be able to do the same thing," Daudt said.
Neither are Republicans completely retreating from the issues that may have cost them their majority -- voter ID and a ban on same-sex marriage. Voters rejected both amendments at the same time they handed control of the Legislature to Democrats.
Hann said while voters declined to put a gay marriage prohibition in the state Constitution, "I don't know that you can say, well, based on that, we should change the meaning of marriage."
Daudt signaled that Republicans will oppose a DFL proposal for pre-Election Day periods of early voting, as is common in a number of other states. To Republicans, he said, early voting is as partisan an idea as voter ID was to the DFL. "It allows them to turn their get-out-the-vote machine on two weeks earlier," Daudt said.
On health care, Hann said he wants to ensure that the state's health exchange, required under federal health reform, does not become a conduit for a single-payer health care proposal that some liberals have long championed. Hann said his goal will be to protect the health insurance industry "so that people who work in that industry are not going to lose their opportunity to make a living."
Hann has drawn political flak for applying for an insurance license, but said he did so after last year's legislative session and has not yet sold any policies.
All 134 House seats and the governorship will be before the voters in 2014. "If we do a good job of laying out our message, and our alternative vision for Minnesota, I think we stand a good opportunity to be back in the majority in two years," said Daudt.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042