Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey, who had been unopposed in his bid for a second two-year term, as of Tuesday has an opponent in former party activist Bill Jungbauer.
In an interview with the Star Tribune, Jungbauer was harshly critical of Downey's financial leadership of the party, which has struggled with persistent debt in recent years.
"I've bit my tongue now, but somebody has to speak out," said Jungbauer, who lives in West St. Paul. His decision to challenge Downey was first reported by blogger and former Republican operative Michael Brodkorb.
Jungbauer was chairman of the 2nd Congressional District Republicans until last Saturday, when he declined to run for another term. From his perch on the state party's executive committee, he and Downey often clashed about the party's debt, now about $1.4 million, Jungbauer said.
"We're supposed to be the party of fiscal responsibility. We have to start practicing what we preach," Jungbauer said. He criticized Downey's decision, supported by a majority vote of the executive board, to run recent TV commercials urging Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers to return the entire $1.9 billion budget surplus.
That spending was "irresponsible" in the face of the party's debt, Jungbauer said.
Downey said Tuesday night that he has made progress on the party's debt and that it will continue to shrink if he is re-elected. Pointing to the House majority won last November, Downey said he believes Republicans are poised for more gains.
"We've turned the corner on many fronts," Downey said. "The turnaround is over and the comeback can begin. In many ways it already has."
Republican Party activists meet on April 11 in Bloomington to elect a party chair.
Downey is a former state representative who lost a race for state Senate in 2012. While the total size of the debt has shrunk under his watch, a series of unpaid bills from the 2014 election cycle prompted several Republican-owned political firms to publicly air criticism of Downey.
Downey questioned Jungbauer's late entrance into the race, arguing that a serious challenger would have gotten started earlier.
Asked which Republican elected officials he admires, Jungbauer named state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, and state Sens. Dave Thompson and Branden Petersen. But he withheld similar praise for one of the party's most prominent new leaders, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who has faced criticism from some on the party's right flank.
"No comment," Jungbauer said when asked his estimation of Daudt.