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WASHINGTON - As the Republican National Committee (RNC) rebuilds from a rocky period marked by big wins, lavish spending and a flamboyantly controversial party chairman, a decidedly unflamboyant Minnesotan will be among its new leaders.
Over nearly 20 years, Jeff Larson built his St. Paul telemarketing firm into one of the nation's most successful political vendors. Now, Larson, 52, steps in as chief of staff for the debt-ridden RNC just as it ramps up for what will be the costly and all-consuming 2012 elections, with possibly two Minnesotans in the presidential hunt.
Despite many years in state and national politics, Larson has been a little-known figure to Minnesotans. But he was a key behind-the-scenes player in campaigns for former Sen. Norm Coleman, former President George W. Bush and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain.
In 2008, Larson gained brief national attention as Sarah Palin's personal shopper during that year's national GOP convention in St. Paul. That same year he was also spotlighted as the landlord who let Coleman rent his basement at bargain prices.
Larson said that for 2012 he's ready for a substantially higher profile as chief of staff. "I wanted to play some significant role in the 2012 election," Larson said. "It really was putting all my chips in and saying I'm all in and fully committed."
Big money man
With the RNC owing nearly $20 million in loans and vendor payments across the country, Larson brings a wealth of money-raising know-how.
He co-founded FLS Connect in the late 1990s with fewer than 10 people. By 2000, the voter-contact company was working with George W. Bush's presidential campaign. In 2010, FLS earned more money than any other Minnesota business involved in the 2010 elections. The company was paid nearly $14 million by 103 federal Republican candidates and another $9 million from the national and state Republican parties, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission and Center for Responsive Politics.
Tom Synhorst, who helped Larson found FLS and has since moved on, said Larson was attracted by the chance to take on the RNC's bleak finances. "This was a pretty serious hole they were in, and I think that the challenge of it was what excited him most," Synhorst said.
Larson will be working with recently elected RNC Chairman Reince Priebus of Wisconsin, creating a new Midwestern power nexus.
The balance between Larson's regional ties and national campaign duties will be put to the test almost immediately. Beyond plotting campaign and fundraising strategy for the RNC, Larson's new job also puts him in a key referee role for the 2012 presidential primaries, which will include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and, very likely, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. Larson was a fundraiser for Pawlenty's political action committee.
Larson said he is staying neutral in the 2012 race, keeping the party focused on its No. 1 goal: beating President Obama. "I've had lots of encouragement from all the campaigns," he said.
Staying out of the limelight
Larson's primary focus at the RNC will be winning back major donors who left the party under former Chairman Michael Steele.
Larson said his biggest strength is his expertise in small donations. Larson's company received its biggest checks in 2010 from fundraising stars Bachmann and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who won the seat of the late Democratic lion Ted Kennedy.
But perhaps what's most important for the RNC's new leaders is keeping a low profile so the spotlight remains on the 2012 presidential candidates, particularly following Steele's headline-grabbing tenure.
Larson's friends said that's just how he prefers it, even if his new job in Washington can't help but raise his profile nationally.
"Being in a position that's more out front will be a difficult change for him," said Tony Feather, who helped found FLS Connect with Larson. "He's a private guy."
No stranger to controversy
Not that Larson hasn't seen his share of the public eye and controversy.
When the political world learned Larson was renting the basement of his upscale Washington, D.C., home to Coleman for $600 a month, the two spent months explaining why the business relationship was above board.
In one of the stranger moments of the 2008 presidential race, Larson wound up being the man who used his own credit card to finance Palin's $75,000 pre-convention shopping spree at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis.
After the election, Larson started Senate Accountability Watch, an organization that has filed two ethics complaints, both against Coleman's 2008 opponent, Sen. Al Franken, and both unsuccessful.
Larson's latest dust-up came in March when the Minneapolis alternative weekly City Pages accused him of illicitly using leftover money from the RNC convention committee to pay staffers and hold parties.
Larson said the allegations were baseless, saying the committee had to remain active until the Federal Election Commission finished its audit. The commission has taken no action against the committee.
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb