Signs of political life and even a green shoot or two of moderation have emerged this summer in Minnesota’s Republican Party. That’s good news for Minnesotans who believe that democracy works best when at least two strong political forces contest for control of government’s levers of power.

In recent days, Republicans of experience and substance have launched bids for statewide offices in 2014, adding heft to fields that until recently had been sparsely populated by lesser-known players. Hints abound that more such candidacies are coming.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken has gained a measure of political comfort through nearly four full years in Washington, judging by the most recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll. But every first-termer in that powerful body should face a genuine challenge for re-election, and the emergence last week of eight-term state Rep. Jim Abeler as a candidate increases the likelihood that Franken will. Also in the running is businessman and political newcomer Mike McFadden.

Abeler, 59, is among the Legislature’s authorities on health care. He’s suspect in some conservative eyes because he voted with DFLers to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase in 2008. We count that as a desirable mark of independence, and his survival despite a primary challenge that year as evidence of political agility.

The GOP field seeking to unseat DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is also growing nicely with the addition Sunday of former House Speaker Kurt Zellers. The GOP gubernatorial field already includes Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and businessman Scott Honour, and is expected to be joined today by state Sen. David Thompson. Others may be on the way.

Zellers, 43, adds a welcome measure of leadership experience to that roster. In two years as speaker, he demonstrated an ability to unite diverse factions within his party and occasionally win praise from DFLers as well.

Like Franken, Dayton saw good news in the latest Minnesota Poll. But we suspect that after four decades in public life, Dayton would agree that political competition often works as a lever to boost the performance of a public servant.

It’s also notable that in the GOP-inclined Sixth Congressional District, two-term state Sen. John Pederson of St. Cloud is offering an alternative to two very conservative contenders, radio talk-show host and former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah.

Minnesota’s Republicans experienced a tough election in 2012, mostly due to problems of their own making. Leadership mistakes among both elected officials and party leaders, and the dominance that right-wing hard-liners enjoy at party conventions, took a toll that left some observers questioning whether the Grand Old Party could seriously contend for major offices in 2014. Those questions are being answered in a way that democrats (that’s a small “d”) ought to appreciate.


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