The man riding to the rescue of the state's Republican Party may be the best-connected political figure you've never heard of.

Pat Shortridge is a 44-year-old political pro who lives in Lino Lakes and who was deeply involved in both the 1994 Republican Revolution and the 2010 Tea Party Revolt. Now he is taking the helm of a wounded state party that is nearly $2 million in debt and facing a wild election year.

Shortridge said that elections are won on ideas and, as broke as it is, that the Republican Party of Minnesota is rich in bedrock principles.

"I think it's important that contrasts are about ideas," Shortridge said in an interview days after he took over. "I'm not so much a fan of personality contrasts and the political back-and-forth contrasts because, honestly, I don't care about it, and I don't think most Minnesotans care about it.''

Shortridge was the overwhelming choice at an emergency party meeting held on New Year's Eve to elect a successor to the abruptly departed Tony Sutton.

He takes over just as the party is coming to grips with nearly $1.3 million in debts and another $719,000 in claims from last year's gubernatorial recount. A local watchdog group has filed a complaint with the state campaign finance board and is urging a review by the Ramsey County attorney's office. Additional federal penalties against the party are possible. The party still doesn't have a big-name U.S. Senate candidate and the Republican Senate caucus has just gone through its own wrenching leadership change.

Setting a new course

Shortridge is undaunted about the decisions he faces.

He said he will refocus efforts on targeting voters and the party's messages and may bring in national names to help with fundraising to retire the party's debt. Shortridge said he is not taking a paycheck from the party and will continue his private consulting business. Republicans must defend their majorities in the state House and Senate, their four congressional seats and find a challenger to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Is that last one a little personal? "People say it's never personal,'' Shortridge said of the Klobuchar race. "Well, it is, just a little bit, let's be honest.''

Shortridge was the campaign manager for Mark Kennedy's 2006 losing bid against Klobuchar.

Growing up Republican

Shortridge, who grew up in Winona, loved Republican politics from an early age and was a fish-out-of-water Republican at decidedly liberal Macalester College. "You had to learn to stand up for what you believed in, to try to argue and persuade and cajole,'' he said, and did so at his lonely Republican table in the student union.

After Macalester, Shortridge became an intern and then paid staffer for Texas Rep. Dick Armey. During 1994's Contract With America election, when Republicans won the U.S. House for the first time in four decades, he worked on House campaigns throughout the country. After Armey became majority leader in 1995, Shortridge helped him keep tabs on the fractious majority.

"I used to call him my 'intrigue L.A.,' in a good way," said Armey, using political shorthand for legislative assistant. "Pat was the guy that kept track of all that stuff. There was always someone scheming. ... He's savvy about the way politicians behave and misbehave.''

He was "a decent man," Armey said, and "I worked in a venue where a decent man is hard to come by."

In 2001, Shortridge became a federal lobbyist for Enron, which collapsed in scandal shortly after he signed on. He left after six months and eventually found his way back to Minnesota, working for U.S. Rep. Kennedy and dividing his time between Washington and his Lino Lakes home.

"He's one of the sharpest political minds I know,'' Kennedy said, noting that 2006, when he lost to Klobuchar by 20 percentage points, was the exception.

Janet Robert, a Democrat who ran against Kennedy in 2002, said at the time that Kennedy's hiring of Shortridge was "taking care of his corporate pals." The Enron connection also came up in the 2006 Kennedy-Klobuchar race and was raised by a questioner at a recent forum for party chair candidates.

Ben Goldfarb, who managed Klobuchar's campaign against Kennedy in 2006, said Shortridge impressed him as a "grown-up" political professional who was serious about his work and deeply believed in his cause.

"He was an aggressive campaigner," Goldfarb said, but "nothing over the line or unfair. He played really hard.''

Shortridge also has worked for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the influential economic "Roadmap" for Armey's FreedomWorks, which was prominent in the fight against President Obama's health care overhaul and in helping the Tea Party movement; against the so-called "card check" union-organizing law sought by the labor movement; for Norm Coleman's 2008-09 U.S. Senate recount, and for 2010 Senate candidates Marco Rubio in Florida (a win) and Dino Rossi in Washington state (a loss.) Rubio's victory, along with other key points in Shortridge's career of dedication to the conservative cause, reinforced his belief that ideas matter.

"The people I've found to be my political mentors, and the people who I look up to, all took that to heart,'' Shortridge said. "Whether it's Ronald Reagan or Dick Armey or Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or others -- they're talking about ideas, they're talking about what do we believe, what do they believe and here's why this is better.''

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042