Minnesota GOP feels party gathering steam

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2010 - 9:39 PM

Buoyed by recent victories and fundraising, some Republicans say the time is ripe to regain the majority.

Minnesota's Republicans are talking confidently again, hoping to capitalize on a country -- and a state -- they think may already be growing tired of President Obama and the Democrats.

From Rod Johnson, a Cannon Falls auctioneer, to Mike Rolih, a onetime baseball pitcher from Illinois, a new wave of GOP candidates is eyeing state legislative seats and predicting that the worst days Republicans endured over the past two years are behind them.

Buoyed by victories in Massachusetts and at home in Waseca, Minn., Republican leaders are talking openly of building a majority in the Minnesota House, shaving the margin in the DFL-controlled Senate and keeping the governor's office firmly in Republican hands.

But it's a long way from February to November and a high climb to capture the 21 seats needed for control of the House, along with the 13 seats required to flip majorities in the Senate. No party has picked up that many seats since the historic 1978 election, when Republicans picked up 32 seats in the House, nearly doubling their numbers.

As Republican strategists assess today's landscape, their enthusiasm is tempered by a nagging uncertainty about their upstart cousins in the Tea Party -- a movement that has electrified conservatives, but whose members are disgruntled with establishment Republicans as well as Democrats.

Deanna Boss, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots of the Twin Cities, said that when compared to Democrats, Tea Party activists view Republicans as "just a slower road to socialism."

For now, the Republicans' mood is growing more confident. Last week, House Republicans crowed that campaign finance reports showed they had out-raised their DFL counterparts in the House and Senate.

"For a 47-member caucus to out-raise both majority campaigns is phenomenal," said House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers. The Republican House caucus received more than $827,000 in 2009, according to state reports, while the DFL House caucus raised just over $632,000.

DFLers, who have controlled the House since 2006 and the Senate since 1972, say they have seen Republican enthusiasm rise before -- and fizzle.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich attributed last month's state Senate win for Mike Parry in Waseca to a simple case of Republicans holding onto a seat that was already Republican. "I don't think that's very newsworthy," Sertich said.

But Republicans have their sights on a range of DFL-held seats, from Cottage Grove and North Branch to Hewitt, in north-central Minnesota.

Jennifer Gumbel, an attorney from Le Roy, in southeastern Minnesota, said she is considering a challenge to Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. Gumbel said that "I hadn't really thought about running this soon," but is convinced that the time may be ripe.

At a meeting of Republican strategists in Rochester late last month, the mood was equally effusive. "What a difference a month makes, though, huh?" a smiling Fran Bradley told the small crowd at a hotel. Bradley, a former state legislator, recapped the latest Republican victories, including Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts for the seat held by Democrat Ted Kennedy until his death. Outside, a pickup truck still sporting a McCain-Palin bumper stick from the 2008 presidential election sat in the ice-covered parking lot.

The Republicans laughed loudly when Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, a key player in recruiting the candidates who may switch Republicans' fortunes in the Senate, jokingly suggested that Sen. Steve Murphy, the longtime DFLer from Red Wing, was the Republican Party's "rising star of the week" for announcing his retirement.

Looking for answers

But toward the end of the meeting, the mood in the room grew pensive as the Republican strategists discussed the nascent Tea Party movement.

"Things [are] ripe," to take legislative seats away from the DFL, said Bruce Kaskubar, the co-chair of the Olmsted County Republican Party. "But people are looking for answers other than the Republican Party."

Gregg Peppin, another Republican strategist and husband of Rep. Joyce Peppin R-Rogers, agreed, but he tried to put a positive spin on it: "In some respects, it's a good problem to have," he told the crowd. "They're testing us."

Waseca Mayor Roy Srp, who ran as an Independence Party candidate for the seat won by Republican Mike Parry last month, said Republicans should worry.

Although Srp lost, he ran surprisingly strong in the three-way race. Voters, Srp said, are simply tired of Republicans bashing everything the DFLers do when they are not in the majority, and of DFLers doing the same when the Republicans gain the upper hand. "More and more people ... get it," Srp said of his showing.

Tea Party leader Boss is more blunt.

"I think the Republicans are [having] a false sense of security if they feel that they automatically have the Tea Party vote in their pocket," Boss fumed. Many Tea Party members, she said, have not forgotten that the Wall Street bailout began with President Bush, a Republican.

Chuck Bradford, who handled media relations for the Tea Party last year in Rochester, is now running as a Republican for the Legislature. Largely because of that, he talks like a man who must step gingerly. "I believe that the Tea Party does have a lot of similar values with the Republican Party," he said, delicately.

But Gretchen Hoffman, another GOP legislative candidate who has spoken at Tea Party rallies, is less diplomatic.

"I see [the Tea Party] being a huge factor," she said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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