Tony Sutton: The stars are aligned for the GOP

  • Article by: TONY SUTTON
  • Updated: June 22, 2012 - 8:18 PM

The party is offering strong candidates in touch with voters' needs.

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Delegates at the Minnesota GOP convention at the St. Cloud Convention Center, Friday, May 18, 2012.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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There has been much in the media about the internal struggles and controversies facing the Republican Party of Minnesota.

Believe me, as someone who has been a part of that maelstrom of coverage, that it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. But let's take a step back and really look at the political landscape.

Despite the DFL's rhetoric, the last legislative session was far from a do-nothing affair. Passage of the Vikings stadium plan removed a potentially huge burr from the GOP's saddle. I would have voted no.

However, the cold, hard political truth is that most people, even those who opposed it, will have largely forgotten about it by Election Day, taking a huge issue off the table. Voters will instead be laser-focused on bigger issues like jobs and the economy -- issues that cut against the DFL.

This is because the presidential race will dominate the political discourse, and that race will be all about jobs and the economy, areas where President Obama is weak. This is especially true with constituencies that matter most to keeping the GOP in control of the state House and Senate.

These GOP legislative majorities are based almost entirely in Greater Minnesota and in the second- and third-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. Even if Obama were to win Minnesota overall, it would be because of lopsided vote totals in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the first-ring suburbs.

To put it simply, the GOP does not need a single vote in the urban core to keep its legislative majorities.

Further, looking at the last two legislative sessions in their totality, the GOP has done an excellent job catering to those suburban and rural constituencies, turning a $6 billion deficit into a $1 billion-plus surplus.

Combine this is with a slightly better legislative map after redistricting, and the odds of keeping control increase even more.

The races for the U.S. House are also cause for GOP optimism. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen are in excellent shape, as is John Kline. Chip Cravaack has been seen as vulnerable, but, frankly, only by people who have not been paying attention to the demographic changes in his district.

While he won by only a percentage point in 2010, he has done all the right things since then -- he's worked hard, has traveled the district and has been a staunch advocate for the priorities of his constituents. As an incumbent, he will only see his vote totals increase, especially in the southern, more conservative (and growing) part of his district.

DFL Rep. Collin Peterson could be the next big upset race. His district votes GOP for statewide offices and for the Legislature. And now, in Lee Byberg, Peterson faces his toughest Republican opponent in 20 years. Byberg's challenge will be to tie Peterson to Obama. If he does that, Peterson will join former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in retirement.

An interesting race is also brewing in the Fifth Congressional District. DFL incumbent Keith Ellison has always underperformed compared with the vote totals of his predecessor, Martin Sabo. Now he, too, faces the best GOP candidate in 20 years -- Chris Fields, an African-American candidate who will contrast well against Ellison.

And what about the U.S. Senate race?

There is no doubt that Sen. Amy Klobuchar is beatable. This is not 2006; this election will be about the economy. It will be difficult for Klobuchar not to be tied to the president. Normally her strategy of low-profile, noncontroversial, consumer-advocate-type initiatives would be a reliable road map to reelection. Unfortunately for her, in this economy she will look out of touch with what people really care about.

Remember Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. He was supposed to be unbeatable, but he ran a conventional, safe and largely message-free campaign and lost to Paul Wellstone, who was talking about the issues weighing on people's minds.

This economy has created a volatile political environment. Voters want change, someone to fix things. Like the fickle owner of a pro-sports franchise who switches coaches every couple of seasons, the voters are searching for leaders who will shake things up.

This environment does not favor conventional politicians like Klobuchar, but nonconventional outsiders like her GOP opponent, Kurt Bills. Bills provides a great contrast to the incumbent (elections, from a tactical point of view, are about contrasts).

He is an economics teacher who will be talking about the economy, jobs, government spending and the like. On the other hand, Amy will be running syrupy positive ads that won't drive votes.

Besides, Minnesotans love plainspoken underdogs (Wellstone and Ventura come to mind). I can predict today that the story in the first week in October will be just how close the Senate race has become.

There are always circumstances that can change races regardless of the political environment. (Can anyone say "tip credit?") But overall, looking at the political landscape and the general mood of the electorate, I'd rather be in the GOP's shoes than in the DFL's.

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Tony Sutton is former chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.

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