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Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert spoke to delegates at the Minnesota Republican Party Convention at the Rochester Civic Center May 30, 2014.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Minnesota parties fight for relevance in political primaries

  • Article by: Baird Helgeson
  • Star Tribune
  • June 16, 2014 - 10:49 AM

A once respected House leader, Republican Marty Seifert is feeling his party’s lash since vowing to challenge the GOP endorsed gubernatorial candidate in a primary. And Matt Entenza, a former DFL House leader who served a decade in the Legislature, has all but been branded a traitor for daring to run against the endorsed candidate for state auditor.

There’s more than bad blood behind the vitriol directed at these former party stalwarts. Political parties are under increasing urgency to maintain their relevance in an era where money is moving to outside interest groups and candidates can find paths to victory that don’t always go through the establishment.

“We are going to protect our endorsements and show the people the party is strong and endorsements still matter,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “You can’t go into a general election with people thinking the party is impotent.”

The stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who find themselves with an unprecedented four-way primary fight for governor, as their endorsee faces off against two former legislative leaders and an independently wealthy businessman.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Andy Post, a spokesman for Seifert, from Marshall. “Nobody in this business knows what to do. We are taking our best guess. Times, they are a changin’ for the party.”

An August defeat of the GOP’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate would be another setback for a party still digging out from a mountain of debt and attempting to reimpose a measure of party discipline.

These testy primary squabbles have Minnesota caught up in a larger trend as state parties nationally struggle under tough new campaign finance laws that are shifting contributions to outside groups. These sometimes powerful independent political groups are unburdened by the expense and hassle of running a party structure and the need to get elected to leadership posts.

State political leaders on both sides are desperate to anchor their parties in the middle of a rapidly evolving political landscape. Parties continue to have an unrivaled ability to mobilize armies of volunteers, groom successful candidates and still hold some financial advantages.

State auditor scuffle

DFLers’ fight for state auditor is the most surprising scuffle of the campaign season.

Democratic activists overwhelmingly endorsed Rebecca Otto for re-election to a post that has been a launchpad to higher office.

Entenza stunned fellow Democrats by jumping into the race moments before the filing deadline and promptly hammered Otto over her votes as a legislator.

Within hours, DFLers were swinging back hard at Entenza with the kind of vengeance usually reserved for Republicans. Martin called his last-minute filing “an insult to the hardworking DFLers he has to win over.” Even Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in, saying he and Otto had their differences on some issues but that he pledged to support her. Dayton, coincidentally, won his seat four years ago by defeating the party’s endorsed candidate in a ­primary. Endorsed candidates for various offices also lost in 2006, 2002 and 2000.

Martin, who this time has promised to put the full weight of the party’s resources behind endorsed candidates, said “This has larger implications about the strength of the party.”

The GOP gubernatorial primary has the potential to be just as nasty.

When Seifert ran for governor in 2010, he played the good soldier and stepped aside when he lost the endorsement to fellow legislator Tom Emmer. This time, Seifert says he’s going the distance and GOP activists are pounding him for it. Many would rather see lockstep unity behind Jeff Johnson to limit Dayton’s advantage fundraising and building a campaign infrastructure over the summer.

“My biggest concern in a contested election is that they were going to beat themselves up quite a bit and spend some resources they wouldn’t have had to,” said Joe Buege, a GOP activist from Rogers.

Seifert dismissed the outrage over his primary fight. “This isn’t the Politburo where someone is anointed by a small group of people,” he said.

Purity vs. electability

Some Republicans say the party’s stamp of approval no longer holds the sway it once did, in part because everyday Republicans often are too busy or turned off by party politics. That increasingly has left political endorsing conventions to ideological die-hards who sometimes select candidates imbued with party purity but lacking broader appeal.

“It is about providing a choice to all Minnesota Republicans,” said GOP gubernatorial candidate Kurt Zellers, a former House speaker pressing ahead to the primary. “I am about having more people involved in the Republican Party, not less.”

Republicans say they are merely replicating a winning, albeit messy strategy used by Democrats, who hold all statewide offices and control the state House and Senate.

“It’s become increasingly difficult for parties to play the role that they have in the past,” said former GOP Party Chair Pat Shortridge, a consultant for Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessman Scott Honour. “It’s my long-held belief that primaries make superior candidates.”

Democratic and Republican party officials hope that resounding primary victories for their endorsed candidates will stem the tide of rebellion — at least for this election cycle.

GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey said he believes the party’s wobbly finances played a role in some candidates’ decision to take on the party’s endorsee. He said party finances have stabilized, and he hopes primary voters will validate the delegates’ choices.

“I’ve been pretty frank,” Downey said. “Show that the endorsement still means something.”

‘Abide by the endorsement’

Minnesota DFLers have been wrestling with the value of endorsements for years. The promise to “abide by the endorsement” that once cleared the field of same-party rivals has been harder to come by.

But Entenza’s run has particularly enraged some DFLers who fear the contest will ignite divisions within the party and be a drag on Dayton and Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who is facing a tough ­re-election fight.

“Democratic activists are beyond ticked,” said Nancy Larson, a longtime DFLer and former auditor candidate. “It makes no political sense. It makes him into a pariah.”

Entenza said he is not put off by the bluster from the DFL’s Martin and other critics. “Democrats have gotten very good at coming together after the primary,” Entenza said. Martin “will be the first one to be on my side when I win. He won’t say it, but he will.”

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

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