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Pat Shortridge

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Minn. Republicans foresee major changes

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
  • Star Tribune
  • November 16, 2012 - 12:24 AM

In boardrooms and coffee shops, on conference calls and in social media, Minnesota Republicans are trying to figure out what went so disastrously wrong on election night and how to make it right.

After a DFL rout that left them distinctly in the minority, powerful forces within the Republican Party are planning major changes, aware that time is already running short. In 2014, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken will be up for re-election, along with the Minnesota House and all U.S. House seats.

"It was ugly, from the top of the ticket to the bottom, and all across the country. It was a bad night," Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said in a blunt, post-election e-mail to supporters. "We have to learn from Tuesday night and move on because the cause is important and there is no time for self-pity."

The severity of the losses nationwide has Republicans reassessing their stances on immigration, taxes, polling and organizational issues.

Among the party faithful in Minnesota, some are saying out loud what they previously only whispered: Their fiscal message was muddied by the now-failed constitutional amendments; their long-sacrosanct party endorsement system has become harmful; and the tendency to boot members who stray from party orthodoxy has to end.

Minnesota Republicans were emboldened when they took control of the Legislature for the first time in more than 40 years during the 2010 mid-term elections. But that triumph aside, party leaders must deal with a hard fact: Republicans have not won a statewide race since 2006 and even their last two gubernatorial victories were by pluralities, not majorities.

The new reality is this: Democrats control both bodies of the Legislature, the governor's office, every other constitutional office, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of Minnesota's U.S. House seats.

"We have to look at everything ... and say, 'Does this give us the best chance to win?'" Shortridge said in an interview.

Some Republicans fear that without an overhaul, they could be out of power for years.

"There is no question that if we present the exact same product in 2014 that we did in 2012, we are going to lose again," said Andy Brehm, a former press secretary for U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and a Republican activist.

A lost message

For many, the reassessment starts with the message. Few Minnesota Republicans are willing to toss aside their smaller government, lower taxes ideals, but many admit that they failed to give voters enough specifics on how electing Republicans would help achieve those goals.

"It's not that Republicans have the wrong message. It is how we are delivering the message and who is delivering the message. ... Not snarking. Not just banging on the governor. It can't just be all about 'Oh, he's raising taxes,'" said former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo.

"The message completely got lost this election," said Koch, who led the GOP to its historic takeover of the state Senate in 2010 only to see the majority evaporate two years later. She resigned from Senate leadership last year after an affair with a staffer.

"As Republicans, we need to spend more time on issues that are important to Minnesotans and less on issues that make us look out of touch," said Maureen Shaver, a strategist who worked with Tim Pawlenty when he ran for governor. "I think the Republicans we just elected are sane and thoughtful and will do just that."

Some Republicans now believe that by putting two constitutional amendments on the ballot, a ban on same-sex marriage and an attempt to change the state's voting system, the GOP-controlled Legislature may have mobilized the Democratic base.

Stanley Hubbard, the chairman of Hubbard Broadcasting who with his family gave at least $100,000 to Minnesota Republicans this year, said of putting the marriage amendment on the ballot: "When you do stupid things like that, you invite yourself to get beaten."

Picking winners

The party's endorsement system, in which a convention picks the candidate and others are supposed to step aside rather than run in a primary, is also getting a close look.

Vin Weber, a longtime Washington lobbyist and presidential campaign adviser to both Mitt Romney and Pawlenty, said the party has hurt itself by insisting on fealty to the caucus system.

"We've narrowed it down to the smallest subsection of Minnesota," he said, referring to the few thousand delegates who participate in the endorsing process.

This year, Republican convention delegates chose freshman state Rep. Kurt Bills to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Bills ran a low-profile, low-budget campaign and was beaten by 32 percentage points -- the worst drubbing of a Republican Senate candidate in a generation.

Weber, a former Minnesota congressman with connections throughout the party, wants candidates held to a new standard. "I'm going to be very reluctant to support a candidate if he or she doesn't say that they are ready to go to the primary," he said.

Coleman, now a Washington lobbyist, is familiar with running the endorsement gauntlet. This week he tweeted, "The system is broken."

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a Republican national committeeman for Minnesota and a possible candidate for governor in 2014, said change is coming.

"I do expect, regardless of what I think, that we will probably see primaries for statewide office going forward."

Opening the party to primaries could also open the party itself.

"We have to have a bigger tent," said Brehm, who is active in Republican politics. "If we want to be a party of 30 percent and have absolute purity amongst our ranks on every issue, we are just never going to win."

Shortridge, who said he will step down as chairman when his term ends in April, largely agrees.

"We have to spend less time trying to vote people off the island and more time figuring out how we can work together behind common goals," he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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