Minnesota Republicans on Saturday picked a new leader who says his party is out of intensive care and “actually ready for the rehab unit.”
Keith Downey, a strategy and technology consultant and former state representative, was overwhelmingly elected to chair a party still vacillating between hope and despair. He pledged to unite Republicans and bring them back into power.
“What’s the last thing that Democrats really really fear? It’s a united Republican Party speaking the truth and getting out in front of the people of Minnesota. And that’s what we are going to do,” Downey told the 500 activists gathered in a Bloomington hotel convention room.
The task ahead is formidable. The party has yet to regain its top donors. The last election cost it every leadership post in state government, including control of the House and Senate. By Republicans’ own admission, Democrats have outgunned them on technology and independent spending.
On the upside: The party has stabilized its finances over last year, is working to regain donors’ trust and next faces a midterm election, which often benefits the party out of power.
It still owes about $1.7 million and has to pay out at least $30,000 a month just to service its debt, but unlike two years ago, it has a payment plan set up with creditors, party treasurer Bron Scherer said.
“We cleared away a lot of unpleasant underbrush. We reformed and restructured,” said outgoing chairman Pat Shortridge, who led the party after the former chairman, Tony Sutton, abruptly quit in late 2011. “The party is better and I think he [Downey] has an opportunity to make it great once again. And great means winning elections.”
When Shortridge took over, the party whose message revolved around fiscal responsibility had undisclosed financial troubles, legal problems and $2 million in debt. Now it has measures in place to make sure the holes are never dug that deeply again.
“We are sort of like the toddler,” Shortridge said. “We are walking. We are a little uncertain at times, but we’re on the way.”
In an echo-filled hotel conference room on Saturday, 500 delegates and alternates gave Downey their vote of confidence in the midst of their uncertainty.
“I think [Downey] can bring the party together,” said Andrew Brevig, a Republican delegate from Stevens County. He said the party, “is in rebuilding mode. Kind of like the Vikings.”
But the way forward will not be the way it was.
The party “will be significantly less important than it has been historically,” said Pat Anderson, a former Republican National committeewoman.
Once a hierarchical organization that placed a high value on party discipline and loyalty, Republicans here and nationally are in flux, with messy infighting, factions and disunity that rivals that of Democrats.
In 2010 Republicans took over the Legislature, but lost the governor’s seat. In 2012 they lost another U.S. Senate race and control of the Legislature, sweeping away the gains of two years earlier. The presidential contest further fractured the party, with activists loudly backing libertarian Ron Paul long after it was clear Mitt Romney would become the nominee.
Sore feelings from those troubles persist.
Bill Paulsen, one of Downey’s opponents for chair, stressed in his campaign the need to listen to grass-roots activists and repeatedly upbraided the national party for its 2012 convention rules, which hurt Paul fans’ ability to be heard.
“I say no to those who would silence our voice and exclude us from the process,” Paulsen said. He received 72 votes to Downey’s 228. Activists Bonn Clayton and Don Allen also ran.
Downey said he would work to bring all into the party.
“I’m pretty done with the word ‘factions.’ I’m not real into hyphenated Americans. And I’m not really into hyphenated Republicans,” said Downey, who ran for the state Senate last year.
Meanwhile, groups outside the traditional Republican Party structure are gaining power.
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman has joined with former state Rep. Laura Brod to create the Minnesota Action Network.
“The traditional vehicle for providing grass-roots efforts for center-right candidates [has] been through a party but, in this day and age, there are efforts that go beyond parties,” Coleman said last month.
The state group, an offshoot of the well-heeled American Action Network, released a survey detailing what’s on Minnesotans’ minds. The results: The DFL has a significant advantage, particularly among women. The survey found that only 15 percent of Minnesotans said the GOP understands “the issues facing the middle class,” compared to 38 percent who said Democrats did.
The recently formed Minnesota Jobs Coalition has also been making its mark — sending out news releases and showing up at meetings to track Democrats’ every word.
“We sensed there was a void or a vacuum on our side and our group has successfully filled that,” said Ben Golnik, a former executive director of the state party who now leads the Jobs Coalition.
Over the past two election cycles, Democrats built up a system in which the party, outside groups and legislative committees work together as much as the law allows. Republicans have had nothing of that magnitude in Minnesota and their outside groups have not fared well.
“We need entities in that world and it’s great that they’re cropping up,” Shortridge said.
Meanwhile, no high-profile Republican has stepped up to run against U.S. Sen. Al Franken or Gov. Mark Dayton, both of whom are up for re-election next year. Although many Republicans have considering running for governor, few have declared more than a passing interest in taking on Franken.
Whoever runs may end up facing a Republican primary.
Shortridge, the outgoing party chair, said that might not be a bad thing.
“You go from talking to 2,000 Republican activists to 3 million general election voters,” he said. “You have to go so big so fast, it is almost an impossibility.”
Downey said his hope is to make GOP endorsement so powerful that candidates would be ill advised to run against it.
“The full capability of the Republican Party, as it exists at that time, will be deployed to support our endorsed candidates,” he said.