Keith Downey, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, joined the race for governor Monday with a promise to vastly cut the size of Minnesota's government.
Downey led the state GOP from 2013 to April of this year. Before that, he served two terms representing the Edina area in the Minnesota House. His lost in his last bid for public office, a state Senate race in 2012. Before entering politics he worked as a private consultant to business as well as state and local governments.
As the chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, Downey said, he worked to significantly cut spending, ultimately reducing the party's sizable debt load by more than half. Now he wants to bring a similar approach to the Capitol, with a pledge to reduce the size of state government by 15 percent in four years.
"I think that's a track record we can run on," Downey said. "We cut our costs, we cut our debts, and we won elections. I think that's a model people will respond to for state government."
A cut of that size to state spending would be hard to pull off: The total size of Minnesota's government has grown year over year for decades, under both Republican and DFL governors.
Republican candidates won no statewide races in 2014 or 2016 under Downey's leadership, but did win control of the state House in 2014 and the state Senate in 2016.
Downey said his time in the private sector positions him well with voters looking for a change.
"There is a great opportunity for an outsider candidate, somebody with business experience, somebody with a solid track record of reforming state government, to get in this race and go directly to the people with that positive message: that we do believe in them," he said at a news conference.
State DFL Chair Ken Martin, who led his party through the same stretch that Downey ran the state GOP, said his former counterpart's support for lower taxes for corporations alongside conservative social views makes him a bad fit for Minnesota.
"Instead of focusing on building better lives for people in our state, Downey has pushed a hard-core conservative agenda that is out of touch with Minnesotans," Martin said, noting his vote in 2011 to put a same-sex marriage ban on the statewide ballot.
Among Downey's other objectives are a slate of issues that he said line up well with President Donald Trump's plans for the country.
Downey says he would eliminate MNsure, Minnesota's state-run individual health insurance market, approve mining and pipeline projects across the state, and defund so-called "sanctuary cities" like Minneapolis and St. Paul that do not direct local police to enforce immigration laws.
Downey also wants to expand the use of vouchers for students to attend private schools and "undo the forced unionization of family child care providers and personal care attendants."
Downey said he expects his campaign will find significant support in Minnesotans who turned out to vote for Trump last year — including those who are not typically interested in politics.
"The people of America and the people of Minnesota are looking and longing for the agenda that Donald Trump ran on," Downey said. "And to the extent that that agenda advances in Washington, D.C., it will be entirely consistent with what we're running on and how we're going to present our campaign to the people of Minnesota."
Downey's campaign announcement quickly drew unusual public rebukes from several other prominent Republicans.
State Reps. Kelly Fenton of Woodbury and Anne Neu of North Branch, both veteran party operatives themselves, took to social media to castigate Downey's tenure as state party chairman.
"The only electoral wins Downey has been a part of are the ones where other people did his job for him," Fenton tweeted, one in a long string of criticisms. Fenton is a former deputy chairwoman of the state GOP.
Downey struck back on Twitter, calling Fenton "bitter" and in turn criticizing her time in state party leadership.
Downey joins more than a half-dozen Republicans who are running for governor, including Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson and Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman.
A similarly crowded DFL field includes U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and three House members: Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester, Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis.
Downey said he will seek the GOP endorsement for governor and will leave the race if he doesn't get it.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790