Less than two weeks ago, Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey sauntered into a press conference and brazenly announced a new campaign to encourage Governor Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to return all of the projected $1.9 billion budget surplus to taxpayers.
Downey stood at a podium, anointed himself “the face and voice" of Republicans in Minnesota and with the party’s limited checkbook, introduced his personal dogma of "Give it Back" into the budget debate at the State Capitol. The "Give it Back" campaign, which included a television advertisement featuring Downey himself, offered scant details.
The estimated cost of the campaign was $150,000 and focused on just three words: "Give it Back." When you are spending $50,000 per word to advertise a message, you really cannot afford to add much detail – especially when you’re over $1 million in debt.
Downey’s "Give it Back" campaign was not designed by an astute political tactician. It certainly was not engineered to work in coordination with Republican leadership at the Minnesota Legislature. Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) said he was not called by Downey before he released his "Give it Back" campaign.
Until Downey voiced his affection for "Give it Back", the phrase was repeatedly uttered by House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) as a way to verbally taunt Republicans at the State Capitol. Thissen has been reminding everyone who would listen that Republicans wanted to "Give it Back" last year, but had not embraced the same budget philosophy this year.
I can only assume that Thissen was moved to tears of joy, after seeing Downey adopt his messaging ruse of "Give it Back."
But for Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature, Downey’s "Give it Back" campaign has created more discord than unity. Republicans received the overly simplistic and unrealistic message spoken by Downey in his television advertisement with bewilderment.
The cartoon visuals conveyed the message that Downey wanted Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to return the surplus in refund checks. Representative Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud), expressed puzzlement with Downey’s message, telling the Star Tribune "I don't think anybody's talking about giving it back in the sense of giving people checks."
There have been few legislative Republicans that have fully embraced Downey’s “Give it Back” campaign. Representative Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) echoed Downey’s call to “Give it Back” and it was recently announced Drazkowski would chair the upcoming convention where Republicans will determine if Downey should serve another term as chairman.
I’m sure it is just a coincidence.
It has not been just Republican legislators that have been confused by the lack of planning in Downey’s "Give it Back" campaign. Three weeks ago, Downey gathered members of the Republican Party of Minnesota State Executive Committee on a conference call and asked for authorization to spend "at least six-figures" on a "Give it Back" campaign.
Downey did not provide specific details on how the campaign would be implemented, nor did Downey disclose to members of the committee that he would be prominently featured in the campaign. The vote to fund Downey’s “Give it Back" campaign was not unanimous, as some members of the committee expressed concern about the size of the party’s debt obligations.
But party chairmen usually get what they want and a majority of members on the State Executive Committee approved Downey’s request. The top leaders in a political party which promotes "exercising spending restraint" authorized Downey to spend up to $999,999.99 without requiring him to report back on the specifics of his “Give it Back” campaign.
When it came time for Downey to unveil his magnum opus, Downey did not bother to send the television advertisement starring him to members of the State Executive Committee who had authorized the expenditure. Many first saw the television advertisement on Twitter. In response to criticism that he did not have the courtesy to share the advertisement before it was released, Downey responded that he could not "risk it" being prematurely released.
Downey's strategery behind the "Give it Back" campaign continues to befuddle Republicans, as it has become clear that $350 checks returning the surplus will not be arriving in mailboxes. Jeff Kolb, a blogger in Minnesota, reported he received a "Give it Back" fundraising call from the Republican Party of Minnesota on Friday.
Kolb's tweet was very informative.
Interestingly, @mngop call started with "Give it All Back" but by the end said if they didn't give it back should spend on "fixing potholes"— Jeff Kolb (@jpkolb) March 20, 2015
The transformation of the party's messaging on the budget surplus from Downey's "Give it Back" to spend it on "fixing potholes" has been speedy. The change is a clear sign that spending some of surplus on projects such as "fixing potholes" is more enticing to donors than Downey's "Give it Back."
For Republicans in Minnesota, it is too bad Downey needed to spend $150,000 to figure this out.
Picture source: Republican Party of Minnesota "Give it Back" TV ad