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Continued: State GOP staggered by debt, scandal

Beset by big debts and sudden scandal, Minnesota's Republican Party is in the throes of extraordinary turmoil on the cusp of a pivotal election year.

Party leaders and activists across the state spent Saturday searching for a path forward even as they were absorbing the shocking departures of the Senate majority leader and one of her top aides. Their resignations came just weeks after that of the state party chairman.

"Right now Republican activists are very upset, almost sad, depressed," said Pat Anderson, a former state auditor who serves on the Republican National Committee. "We are going to have that for awhile."

It's been a stunning twist for a party that a year ago was savoring historic legislative victories and came within a whisker of winning the governor's office. Now it must try to bail itself out of debt, hold onto majorities in the state House and Senate, mount a credible challenge to popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and campaign for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would preclude gay marriage -- all with a new set of leaders.

The party was still adjusting Friday to Thursday's news that Sen. Majority Leader Amy Koch had resigned her leadership position when it was disclosed that the resignation came shortly after fellow legislators confronted her about allegations that she'd had an improper relationship with a male staff member who she supervised directly. That same day, Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy party chairman and Koch's communications chief, abruptly left his Senate post. Senate leaders wouldn't say whether the two resignations were linked.

For a second straight day, Koch and Brodkorb declined interview requests or could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The Senate news came just weeks after state party Chairman Tony Sutton resigned, leaving the party more than $1 million in debt. The party's executive director resigned some time earlier, in what some characterized as a cost-saving measure.

Brandon Sawalich, a leading candidate to replace Sutton, ended his bid late last week after a confrontation with authorities at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport over unpaid vehicle license tabs and news of a previously settled sexual harassment allegation.

"The party is right on the verge of being totally immobilized, at least for 2012," said a longtime GOP operative.

Party activists said they remain convinced that there is time to rebuild.

"This is rock bottom, so let's get going," said Gregg Peppin, a party strategist who is married to state Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. "Clearly, there's been some growing pains. When you transition from the minority to the majority, the burden of leadership is very, very high."

Koch's loss could be especially problematic for the Senate, where she was widely credited with doing the recruiting and organizing that catapulted Republicans into the majority for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Not since DFL House Speaker Dee Long's 1993 resignation over members' inappropriate use of state phones has scandal toppled such a high-ranking legislative leader.

Gregg Peppin said the November 2012 election is a long way off and that voters will care more about which party is the best steward of state resources, not the foibles of a few individuals.

"The hill is steep, there's no question about it," he said. "But there is time to recover." Anderson said the party should get credit for cleaning up its own messes and showing that it's willing to hold its leaders accountable.

"It's obviously being done in a really public manner, and there's a lot of damage that's been left behind," she said.

She said the party's Executive Committee "went after Chairman Sutton," and he resigned. Senate leaders confronted Koch in much the same way, she said.

Republicans now must rebuild a depleted party without leadership positions filled.

In debt, but how much?

Activists are poring over the party's finances, but do not yet have a firm idea of how deep the debt is.

By some measures, the party could owe well over $1 million, with less than one year before what many expect to be a wildly expensive election year.

The party itself owes $775,000, including fines for earlier campaign finance reporting violations. Another $500,000 is owed in a separate account from the party's unsuccessful gubernatorial recount, when Republican Rep. Tom Emmer narrowly lost to DFLer Mark Dayton.

There is dissent over whether the party is obliged to repay the recount debt.

Jeff Johnson, a GOP national committeeman who has taken a lead role in straightening out party finances, said "at least of right now" he does not view the recount debt as party debt.

But Tony Trimble, one of the recount attorneys and a longtime Republican, said it is clear that the GOP is responsible for those legal bills.

"The party was indeed our client," he said.

As GOP leaders examine the party's books, they are not convinced of the accuracy of financial disclosure reports the party submitted under Sutton.

"We are looking at that to see if that is the case," Johnson said.

Johnson said he has not ruled out that more creditors could come forward with new bills.

"Anything's possible at this point," he said.

Party volunteers and others outside the immediate swirl of insider politics are frustrated and confused, struggling to make sense of the profound shift in their landscape.

Saturday, there was new fallout. The campaign for state Sen. Mike Parry's First District congressional bid said that Brodkorb had also resigned from his voluntary strategy position.

"I'm a little shell-shocked," said Republican activist Laura Gatz of Howard Lake. "The MnGOP is currently running around like a chicken with its head chopped off."

Gatz said the party should be focused on the 2012 election. "Instead, we're sidelining with our very own soap opera."

Brad Aho, an activist from Eden Prairie, said he is trying to assess the turmoil.

"The Republican message is one of smaller government and keeping taxes as low as we can," he said. "That still connects with people." Others worried that a party that champions the sanctity of marriage and living within one's means will now face repair work with voters.

Republican strategist Ben Golnik held a holiday party Friday night. About 100 people came, including former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert, GOP finance chairman Bill Guidera and Pat Shortridge, a possible candidate for party chairman.

The party was intended to be full of merriment and festivity. But along with holiday cheer, Golnik said, "people were anxious to compare notes and sort of talk about the road ahead."

baird.helgeson@startribune.com 651-222-1288

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