Keith Downey sat in the back of Fellowship Hall at Edina's Calvary Lutheran Church last week as other speakers addressed a gathering of Senate District 49 Republicans.
His left leg bopped up and down. He skipped the dinner prepared by volunteers. He smiled tightly when state Rep. Dario Anselmo joked that Downey might be overdressed in his suit and tie. He clapped politely when state Rep. Matt Dean, then a fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate, finished his remarks.
When it was Downey's turn, there were no signs of jitters as he spoke of his tenure as state GOP chairman and the daunting job he's seeking. He joked, "Mark Dayton's been doing it for seven years, so how hard can it be?" He talked about failing schools, the burdens on small businesses, fixing health care and his "fundamentally conservative, fundamentally positive" message.
Downey, 57, has built his campaign around a blend of Trumpian conservatism, business acumen, legislative experience, inclusiveness and an outsider's take on government's flaws. He finished third in a recent straw poll of GOP activists behind Dean, whose exit from the race last week could benefit Downey, and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, whom Dean endorsed.
Downey "certainly had his heart in what he said," retiree Bill Holm, 67, said. "When I knew him as state party chair, he was very subdued. Now he seems super charged up."
Abdi Hirsi, 43, a Republican activist from Edina and a Somali-American small-business man, remains uncommitted, but was impressed, too. "The part I like the most was him telling the community that you don't have to depend on the government," he said. "You can depend on yourself."
Downey was backed by 1 percent of GOP voters in a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll taken in January, but 54 percent were undecided. The contours of the race will become clearer after party caucuses on Feb. 6. Barring late entry by a big name like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty or House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Johnson and Downey are now the two candidates with the lengthiest political resumes. Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and U.S. Navy officer Phillip Parrish are also running.
'Basic Minnesota stock'
"I'm a classic Minnesotan," Downey said. "I'm from basic Minnesota stock [and] the Minnesota ethic means a lot to me."
His dad is a teacher and swim coach — South View Middle School's Art Downey Aquatic Center in Edina bears his name. His mom waitressed to bring in extra money.
After attending public schools in Edina, Downey enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He earned business degrees, then worked as a consultant in Wisconsin and back in Minnesota.
State and local governments were among his clients, giving him, he said, glimpses "behind the curtain." He said he became "more cautious in how much of the mission of society you can hand off to government and expect it to actually go well."
In 2008, by then living back home in Edina, Downey decided to challenge Republican state Rep. Ron Erhardt, who was serving his ninth term. Downey said he felt that Erhardt was not sufficiently supportive of then-Gov. Pawlenty.
"I thought, there's no way this person can represent me and my hometown," Downey said. He won the GOP endorsement, then the election and was re-elected in 2010.
Serving in the Legislature shaped Downey's view that governments should be smaller and more efficient, he said. "I thought, if we really want to succeed here in Minnesota, we need to start peeling back what government is doing. It's too intrusive."
He detected the same sort of attitudes among voters in Donald Trump's election. People "have totally lost confidence in politics and the political class and government," he said.
Downey lost a state Senate bid in 2012 by 2,848 votes. He was elected chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party in 2013. His tenure, which ended last April, has generated much discussion during his current campaign.
Downey told Republicans at Tuesday's gathering that during his time as GOP chairman, "we cut our spending 50 percent, our debt by 63 percent and we started winning again." Republicans won control of the state House in 2014 and the state Senate in 2016.
Taking over the party apparatus during a time of budget woes and low spirits was a challenge. "Not everybody likes it when you do a big turnaround job," he said in the interview, "but we did it."
He also left behind some critics. When he announced his candidacy for governor, state Rep. Kelly Fenton, who was a deputy chairwoman under Downey, questioned his track record on Twitter and noted that "his own district voted against him for Senate." Downey replied, "When you drain the swamp in politics, the establishment fights you tooth and nail."
Jeff Kolb, a Crystal City Council member and GOP activist, said he got the impression while Downey was state party chairman that he was positioning himself to run for governor. "His entire tenure at the state party was viewed through the lens of Keith Downey doing what's best for Keith Downey," said Kolb.
Michael Brodkorb, a former party deputy chairman, said the GOP chairman job probably "wasn't a good fit" for Downey — in part because he was driven by policy, not candidate promotion. But that might serve him well in the governor's race, said Brodkorb, who doesn't plan to endorse anyone. "Of all the candidates, he seems to be someone who is engaging quite a bit in policy discussions," Brodkorb said.
Last week, Downey had to fend off a different controversy. He was accused by Johnson of looking the other way while a staffer set up a fake Facebook page to smear Johnson. In a statement, Downey said the online activity occurred before the staffer was hired and he was "unaware at that time of the origins" of the "shameful and unacceptable" page.
In an e-mail to supporters Friday, he said "it is false" that his campaign ever engaged in "social media trolling."
'Making Minnesota work'
Amy Downey, Keith's wife of more than three decades and the mother of their three children, said in an interview that when they weighed a run for governor, she said, "You've got to say what you're going to do. You've got to mean it."
He has proposed cutting state spending by 15 percent over four years, repealing the MNsure health exchange and replacing it with income-adjusted vouchers, providing vouchers to allow parents to move children from failing schools, pushing for term limits for legislators, and reducing taxes and regulations to encourage job creation.
Downey welcomes comparisons to Trump. "His agenda is right on," he said. "People want secure borders. They want us to be strong and secure internationally, and they want to feel safe in their homes."
But unlike Trump, who has tried to close U.S. borders to immigrants from Somalia and other Muslim nations, Downey has reached out to that community, distinguishing himself from Parrish's criticism of Islam. Johnson backs a pause in refugee resettlement.
Downey has spoken to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. In 2016, as GOP chairman, he spoke at Muslim Day at the Capitol. "It's consistent with my theme of making Minnesota work for everyone," he said. "You will never find somebody more fiercely proud that they are here and that … they're able to provide for their family than the people who have come here and have done it recently. The stories are inspiring."