In Minnesota, hard-edged Republicans forced a 2011 shutdown to avoid any tax increases and pushed through a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage; voters punished them by sweeping in Democratic legislative majorities, which promptly passed the steepest tax hikes in recent history (and legalized same-sex marriage).
The core of the problem, according to GOP strategists, is that the Tea Party and Liberty Movement now control Minnesota’s endorsing process. By storming the caucuses that select delegates for the GOP’s endorsing conventions, they nominated Tom Emmer in the 2010 gubernatorial race. He lost to Dayton in what was a banner year for Republicans across the country and in Minnesota, where the GOP seized control of both legislative chambers for the first time in decades. The establishment also blamed the right for anointing Kurt Bills in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. Bills suffered the worst Senate defeat in state history as even Republicans and GOP-leaning independents chose Amy Klobuchar. The insurgent right’s promotion of unelectable purists has become a familiar story across the country over the past two election cycles — costing the GOP control of the U.S. Senate.
• • •
So the battle is on. The Republican establishment and the business community are now gearing up to launch primary campaigns in 2014 to topple the party’s once sacrosanct endorsing process in Minnesota, the better to nominate pragmatic conservatives for the U.S. Senate and governor.
My conversations with Republicans, traditional party allies and grass-roots insurgents spotlight three questions that may animate the battles in 2014 and perhaps beyond:
1) Whose economic ideas hold out the best opportunity for jobs and growth?
Attacks on an increasingly unpopular President Obama are expected, but Republicans also are looking for attractive ideas to move America forward. The right’s recipe is strong leaders who will pull back government’s tentacles that are holding back individuals’ natural entrepreneurial spirits. The establishment yearns, as a business leader put it, for “Republican candidates who come from business or know about business to support policies that yield growth — not precipitate the next recession.”
2) Who can be most effective in the process of governing?
Establishment Republicans hunger for leaders in the mold of Ronald Reagan, who struck compromises with Democrats that advanced conservative principles. He was ferocious in cutting spending and taxes but also produced reforms that strengthened Social Security and Medicare for decades and increased taxes when necessary.
The right recoils at compromise — getting a seat at the negotiating table, they say, invariably produces more government. A Liberty Movement activist confided: “Some of us don’t want governing at all” and get “heartburn from working in the trenches to elect Republicans who refuse to roll back government.”
3) Who can win general elections in Minnesota?
The Republican establishment is convinced that the right can’t win. “The stakes are too high,” a leader in the business community tartly observed, to be “nominating candidates who soothe the souls of the far right but can’t compete with Dayton or Franken in 2014.”
Faced with the threat of business-backed primary challengers, one leader of the Liberty Movement in Minnesota had a confident comeback: “Bring it on.” This person counts two-thirds of GOP activists as libertarian and Tea Partiers. Business and its allies may “flood the airwaves and buy some support, but do they have the votes to win a primary?” Realists in the Republican establishment privately concede that a mid-August primary battle (when turnout is low and dominated by ardent activists) is “horrible for us.”
The rebellious right may also find its endorsees backed by a Republican Party ready to defend its internal process. A party leader counsels business and its allies to “think long and hard before taking on the party.” The difference between their candidate and the party’s endorsee may be “only marginal.” He also warned the establishment and business against alienating party activists: “If the Tea Party is untethered to have its way, it would bulldoze the buildings.”
• • •
Who will win?
Optimists within the Republican establishment hope for a synthesis in which the new right is “integrated” into the Republican Party “just as the social conservatives were in the 1990s.” Optimists among the new insurgency hope for the old guard to yield to the grass roots.
But the odds favor a prolonged battle. The right’s mobilization appears to have gained a tight grip on the nomination. And it is on guard, as one activist put it, against the establishment’s strategies of “recruitment and pacification” and is ready to bolt, pointing to the Libertarian candidate’s part in defeating the GOP in Virginia’s recent gubernatorial race: “the Liberty Movement made a huge statement that it is not willing to go along with the GOP establishment.”
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.