While the Republican Party must conduct serious introspection about how to move forward, a much-needed first step for the party in Minnesota is to end the outdated candidate-endorsement process. The result would be much stronger general-election candidates.
This year, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Kurt Bills broke just 30 percent in a statewide race (one of the lowest percentages in Minnesota history for a major-party candidate). Bills' candidacy was driven largely by libertarian backers of Ron Paul's campaign for president. Bills was largely unknown to most Minnesotans, since the campaign was run on a shoestring and did not have the resources to run statewide television ads. In a telling sign of the troubles the campaign faced, Bills barely broke 50 percent in the Republican primary in August against two unknown candidates who had no money or organization.
Two years earlier, the gubernatorial election in Minnesota provided an illustrative example of the problems with the endorsement process. Tom Emmer was the fire-and-brimstone Republican candidate that the Tea Party and Ron Paul activists backed for governor in the endorsement process. Emmer lost in the best year for Republicans in more than a generation to a deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Mark Dayton.
The endorsement process has proven challenging for Minnesota Democrats as well. In 2010, they endorsed then-Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher as their candidate for governor. Dayton, who noted that fewer than one-third of 1 percent of those who typically vote in the DFL primary participate in the DFL endorsement process, bypassed that process, won the primary and was elected governor.
For Republicans, the endorsing convention is composed of about 2,000 delegates from around the state. To win endorsement, a candidate must receive 60 percent of the vote. Essentially, 1,200 delegates pick the Republican candidate for statewide office.
How were these 1,200 delegates selected? First, Republicans had to attend precinct caucuses on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter. These caucus meetings could last for a couple hours as attendees elect delegates to local conventions. The local conventions are held a few weeks after the precinct caucuses, typically on Saturdays, and last several hours. At these conventions, delegates to the state convention are elected. Finally, a state convention (with a $75 registration fee per delegate in 2012) is held on a Saturday in the late spring. Many delegates must travel hundreds of miles and pay for a couple of nights in a hotel. The actual endorsement process can last the entire day and late into the night until a candidate reaches the 60 percent threshold.
This costly, time-consuming process discourages involvement from a broader group of Republicans. For families with young children, it requires money for babysitters. For small-business owners, it requires significant time away from their jobs.
With the complicated process, a well-organized minority can defeat a poorly organized majority. At the Republican caucuses in February 2012, Ron Paul received about one-quarter of the votes cast. At the Republican state convention a few months later, Paul supporters represented more than half of the delegates. Bills, a teacher and first-term state representative, was selected by the ardent Paul supporters as the U.S. Senate candidate.
As Republicans look to run serious challengers to Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken in 2014, strong candidates must be recruited -- from both inside the existing structure and from outside. Prospective candidates should skip the endorsement process and run in a primary, rather than focusing solely on the endorsement process. Credible candidates must be able to demonstrate an ability to raise money and communicate a message to a broader audience than 2,000 Republican delegates.
Ending the endorsement process doesn't mean Republican candidates must abandon conservative principles. The primary would still be a vetting process. The activists who are typically elected delegates would still need to be courted and won over by Republican candidates, who must build grass-roots infrastructures to prevail in a primary election.
Many within the Republican Party in Minnesota have argued over the years that being "endorsable" and "electable" are not mutually exclusive. I believe the last two election cycles proved being "endorsable" and "electable" are mutually exclusive. By scrapping the endorsement system, Republicans will be better positioned to win elections in Minnesota in 2014 and the years to come.
Ben Golnik is a political and public-affairs strategist. He was executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party from 2005 to 2007.