Caucus-based system magnifies populist political tides.
Minnesota's political parties are dynamic entities. That fact was vividly on display in St. Cloud Friday and Saturday, as the Republican state convention exhibited a libertarian streak wider and deeper than seen at any previous state GOP confab in the modern era.
That's a change that warrants voters' notice. Many candidates advanced by this year's GOP invoke a 19th-century understanding of the rightful role of government.
They hold, in the words of state Rep. Keith Downey of Edina, that "our constitutional republic has been under attack from within for nearly a century." Their emergence widens the philosophical gulf between Minnesota's major parties -- a gulf that's already proving difficult to bridge by those seeking to govern this state.
Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul may have suspended his presidential campaign one week ago, but no state convention observer would have guessed as much. Delegates gave Paul a rousing reception Friday, chanting "President Paul" and cheering his claim that a revolution is afoot in American politics.
The U.S. Senate endorsement went easily to state Rep. Kurt Bills, unknown outside legislative circles and his Rosemount district until a few months ago. His ties to Paul mattered much with the 2,175 delegates.
Twelve of 13 available national delegate spots went to Paul supporters Saturday. They join the 20 Paul supporters among 24 delegates elected previously at GOP congressional district conventions. The Paul forces might have made a clean sweep Saturday, but for Paul backer Don Huizenga stepping aside to assure U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a former presidential candidate, a seat with her state's delegation.
The success of Paul's forces may surprise Minnesotans who recall that Rick Santorum won the presidential preference ballot cast at precinct caucuses Feb. 7. Paul registered 27 percent of those votes, compared with 45 percent for Santorum, who now backs presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. Romney won 17 percent of the Feb. 7 vote.
But that vote was not binding. And the caucus-to-convention system of party decision-making favors activists who are highly motivated and highly organized. It's a process that worked to Paul's advantage. So did the winner-take-all rules that govern intraparty GOP elections.
The result will be a heavy "constitutional conservative" imprint on Minnesota's Republican Party for at least the next two years. The platform approved Saturday spells out some of the policy positions that implies: Abolition of the Federal Reserve. Rejection of Keynesian economics, which recommends government stimulus spending during recessions. Phasing out Social Security, "while continuing to fulfill our obligation to older Americans." Moving "people on the road to self-sufficiency" in paying for health care. Ending U.S. participation in the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
For Minnesota, the new Republican agenda goes well beyond the staples of "no new taxes" and opposition to abortion. It includes repeal of the 2007 alternative energy standards law signed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and an end to voter registration on Election Day. One speaker drew cheers at the suggestion that legislators who voted for this year's stadium bill be replaced.
New blood has often arrived in tidal waves in Minnesota's political parties. Sometimes it has ebbed quickly. But voters who believe government remains a useful tool for improving people's lives should not presume that the state GOP's fascination with constitutional fundamentalism is a passing fancy. And they should ask whether a caucus-based political system that magnifies populist tides serves this state well.
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