A bitter divide in the state Republican Party over expanded gambling has activists saying they want a closer look at the party chairman's ties to the anti-gambling group he helps lead and the tribal money that funds it.

Republican leaders want Party Chairman Tony Sutton to explain how GOP activists on a closely held party database began receiving e-mails from Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, a group funded in part by American Indian casino operators opposed to gambling expansion.

"If Sutton wants to be part of CAGE, then he's going to have to answer questions," said John Gilmore, a St. Paul Republican who supports Sutton.

Sutton said Wednesday there's no proof CAGE even has the list. The group's chairman, Republican operative Jack Meeks, said the group built its own database over the past several years.

"We don't give anybody the list," said Sutton, a CAGE board member. He said the latest accusations are part of a "smear campaign" by those who want to expand gambling.

This is the latest rift in an increasingly public feud between GOP activists over the issue of gambling. With the state facing a $5 billion projected deficit, several GOP legislators are looking at a handful of proposals to expand gambling as a way to close the gap. Some party members, such as Sutton, squarely back the part of the party platform against the expansion of gambling. Other Republicans come down on another part of the party platform that calls explicitly for ending the tribal monopoly on casino-style gambling. A cluster of Republican legislators has proposed a new casino in downtown Minneapolis and video slots at horse racing tracks, turning them into racinos. The wound was torn open again a couple weeks ago when newly elected GOP National Committeewoman Pat Anderson signed on to lobby for slots at Canterbury Park. That prompted Sutton's second-in-command, Michael Brodkorb, to openly demand her resignation from the post.

The recent e-mail by CAGE cited an "URGENT Call to Action."

"We need your help to make sure our elected officials know that our future fiscal stability should not include racinos, or any other form of expanded gambling," Meeks wrote.

Personal e-mails used

Meeks said Wednesday that the group does not have the GOP list, which party officials say comprises about 5,000 GOP delegates and alternates. CAGE staffers built their database -- about 1,000 names -- from people who signed up at the website or signed petitions at various political gatherings, Meeks said.

Gilmore, who received two similar CAGE letters in his personal e-mail account, said he never signed up for the CAGE e-mails.  Willa Dailey, a party delegate from Mankato who strongly supports racinos, had similar concerns when she received an e-mail from the GOP espousing CAGE’s views on gambling expansion.

When she saw the e-mails that were so opposed to her personal views, she checked into the group and was stunned to learn her party chairman was on the board.

"I'm so relieved to know there's somebody there who was willing and able to challenge this," Dailey said. "I don't think we've had a healthy debate among a fair representation of active Republicans. I know so many who" support expanded gambling.

State Rep. Kurt Daudt, who serves on the executive committee, said he has heard that a few board members want to talk to Sutton about his ties to CAGE. The group has special tax status, which allows it to raise money from individuals or corporations without reporting who is giving.

"I have a hard time believing he would let them out," Daudt said of the GOP names. "We have ways of figuring out who they got the list from."

Steve Perkins, a state GOP executive committee member from Luverne, said he never received any e-mails from CAGE, even though his name is in the party database in question.

Along with serving on the CAGE board, Sutton has had business ties to the group, which he says perfectly aligns with the party platform against gambling expansion.

Weeks after Republicans took control of the Legislature, Sutton formed the consulting business Winning Strategies LLC in December. In January, Winning Strategies joined forces with Public Affairs Co., led by GOP operative Steve Knuth.

Just this year, Public Affairs was hired by CAGE to do public relations.

Sutton said earlier this year that Winning Strategies gets no money directly from CAGE and that the group is not a client of Winning Strategies. He would not disclose any of his clients.

After winning re-election as party chairman less than a month ago, Sutton now says he's so busy with GOP work that the firm has languished.

Staff writer Brad Schrade contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288