State GOP regroups, rebuilds around uncertain national political landscape

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2013 - 10:44 PM

Activists work to put debt and scandal in the past, and unify the faithful.

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“I hope the realization sinks in that we have to compete and get a lot better,” said former state GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge, who is critical of the bickering that has turned Republicans against one another.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Clawing out of a two-year stretch marked by debt and scandal, Minnesota Republicans are finding themselves with precious little time to mount their most massive rebuilding effort in a generation.

Saddled with bills left by a previous administration, the state party recently needed to raise $150,000 a month just to pay expenses and keep the doors open. GOP activists are quarreling with business groups over the best way to attack DFLers, even as the party is trying to win back its big donors.

Some well-funded, well-connected candidates have lined up for the top of the ticket, but they are already having to plan for expensive endorsement, primary and general election fights without counting on much input from the state party. “Being functionally insolvent, the state party doesn’t have the means to enforce endorsement decisions the way it has in the past,” said Chris Georgacas, a political strategist and former GOP chairman. “What does it offer today? It offers a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

Still, some hope the humbling defeats of the last election will refocus the party, and that two years of DFL rule will persuade voters to rebalance power at the Capitol.

‘We have to compete’

“I hope the realization sinks in that we have to compete and get a lot better,” said former state GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge, who is critical of the bickering that has turned Republicans against one another. “Whether libertarian-leaning or whatever you care about, you have to come to realize that it is better to elect Republicans than Democrats to represent what you believe.”

Republicans hit a high water mark in 2010, when they controlled both legislative chambers for the first time.

The bottom soon dropped out.

By the end of 2011, the state party chairman abruptly resigned amid news that the organization was swamped with $2 million of debt. His second-in-command, who also served as communications director for the Senate Republican caucus, was fired after admitting he’d had an extramarital affair with his boss, the Senate majority leader, who herself was forced to resign her leadership post.

In 2012, voters handed complete legislative control to the DFL. Highlighting the depth of their tumble, Republicans no longer hold a single statewide elected office.

“I wouldn’t say there is open warfare in the Republican Party, because frankly, there hasn’t been that much to fight over,” Georgacas said.

Just as state Republicans were starting to see a few glimmers of hope, the federal government shutdown has come as a reminder of the state’s 2011 shutdown, when the GOP last controlled the Legislature — and one that Republicans now fear could make their comeback more difficult.

“Especially in Minnesota, this government shutdown is not going to sit well with the public,” said former state Sen. John Howe, a Red Wing Republican who was defeated in the last election and is considering a run for statewide office. “We got blamed for it last time, and we will get blamed for it now.”

The latest polls have shown that Republicans are taking a major share of the blame for the federal shutdown and their approval ratings nationally have plummeted.

A new chapter

Many promising GOP ­candidates and activists in Minnesota are eager to shed a tumultuous past.

They say DFL fatigue is setting in and voters could be ready for a GOP surge — if Republicans avoid the missteps that landed them in the political doldrums. The coming months will be a crucial in determining whether the state GOP regains ground or spends another two years on the ­political sidelines.

State Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said the party has renegotiated its debts and dramatically trimmed costs in recent months, emerging as a far leaner, more focused operation. “We have regained confidence from the donor and the activist communities,” he said.

Bitter feelings still divide many of the more traditional conservatives, and libertarian-leaning supporters, who swarmed the party during the last election cycle and displaced many longtime activists at the state convention.

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