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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.
The tension is most vividly playing out as the two sides try to chart a new course.
Republicans have marveled at how a hive of once-quarreling Democratic groups have unified under Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a campaign powerhouse that has created a broad, deep network of donors and pours millions into races while staying aggressive between campaign cycles.
Some Republicans are working toward their own version of Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
“There’s a pretty much universal acceptance that we need to do things differently,” said GOP strategist Ben Golnik, who formed the Minnesota Jobs Coalition in an attempt to fill the void. “For the first time in a generation we don’t have anything, not the House, not the Senate, not the governor’s office.”
Golnik’s group has blasted DFL Gov. Mark Dayton far more aggressively than the state party and long before the GOP even has a front-runner for governor. Taking a page from the GOP’s old playbook, the Jobs Coalition has deployed video trackers to record Dayton at events, giving them critical footage for the coming campaign.
Golnik meets regularly with heavyweight GOP donors, party leaders, East Coast strategists and local business groups to sell his bare-knuckled approach.
“It’s kind of a Field of Dreams model,” Golnik said. “If you build it, they will come.”
Business leaders have formed their own group, United for Jobs. The Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce say their goal is to elect pro-business candidates, not specifically Republicans.
“The primary thing we are trying to do is unify the business community,” said David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Much like Alliance for a Better Minnesota has done, unifying various groups and checking egos at the door.”
Many libertarian-leaning Republicans are wary of that strategy.
Craig Westover, a Ron Paul supporter now working for Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson’s gubernatorial campaign, is convinced that groups like Alliance bring out the worst in politics.
To groups like these, he said, “Truth is irrelevant. True, false, half-truths, misleading statements — none of that matters. You cannot build a vigorous and productive state on corrupt politics.”
Like many in the party, former Republican Sen. Amy Koch is reflecting on the current state of the GOP. She was a driving force in helping Republicans win the Senate in 2010, only to see that achievement implode after admitting to the extramarital affair and stepping down.
Republicans in Minnesota are turning over every stone looking for their next Ronald Reagan or their next landslide, she said. But success is the result of a confluence of many complex, unpredictable factors, she said.
“Everyone thinks a leader or a moment is so easily recreated,” but “those are rare moments where opportunity and leadership combine,” Koch said. “The next path forward will come with a nod to the past, but something entirely new.”