Minnesota Republicans stuck with a known quantity to lead their party Saturday, re-electing Keith Downey as state chairman as he vowed to reverse the party's long losing streak while continuing to erase its persistent debt.
"The turnaround is over and the comeback begins," Downey told a crowd of several hundred Republican activists gathered at Olson Middle School in Bloomington for leadership elections. Downey handily defeated two challengers for the top post, winning 68 percent of the vote of 339 voting delegates.
A former state representative and business consultant from Edina, Downey, 54, first won the party chairmanship in 2013, not long after losing a state Senate race. He took over as the state GOP was still recovering from serious financial problems dating to the chairmanship of Tony Sutton, who left the post in 2011 under a cloud.
In 2012, the party was nearly evicted from its former headquarters in St. Paul. When Downey took over in April 2013, the party owed $1.7 million; today its debt stands at about $1.4 million. Last year, the Republican candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and other statewide offices all lost, although the party did regain a foothold in state government thanks to a GOP takeover of the state House.
"If Jeff Johnson had 30 more days, if Mike McFadden had 30 million more dollars, they might be in office today," Downey told GOP delegates. Offering up an action plan entitled "Win Everything," Downey laid out what he called a comeback strategy involving fundraising, grass-roots organizing, message development and cultivation of new party leaders.
In 2016, Downey said, Republicans "have to win the presidency, hold the U.S. Senate, hold the U.S. Congress, hold our majority in the Minnesota House, win the majority in the Minnesota Senate and increase our Republican congressional delegation here in Minnesota."
The biggest test for the party comes in 2018, when the governor's office will be open, and the Senate seat now held by Democrat Amy Klobuchar is on the ballot. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the last Republican to win statewide office in Minnesota, when he was narrowly re-elected in 2006.
While some party activists have grumbled that Downey has been too slow in shrinking the party's debt, he said fundraising would be a major focus. During his speech, he brandished a list of what he said were the names of 43 Republican donors he planned to call on Monday.
Both of Downey's opponents were party activists: Neil Lynch, a software consultant, is chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian-oriented group. Bill Jungbauer, a carpenter, just stepped down as GOP chairman of the Second Congressional District.
Jungbauer focused his greatest criticism on Downey's financial leadership of the party, noting that several national Republican-owned media firms have gone public with complaints about unpaid bills from the Minnesota GOP dating to last year's election. His speech was offbeat and at times veered more toward an attempt at stand-up comedy, as he related how he honked his horn and flashed his middle finger at a car with a Barack Obama bumper sticker, to some audience applause.
Lynch's criticisms were more sweeping, focusing less on Downey and more on a state party he called "in decline" as it suffers from infighting among party factions, the continued debt burden and a shrinking base of reliable voters.
Talking about reaching younger voters alienated by the GOP's stance on social issues, Lynch choked up as he described how his teenage daughter came out as gay two years ago. "Which party do you think she's going to vote for and support next year?" he asked. The party's traditional base, he said, "is, no offense, literally dying off."
Out of 339 votes cast, Lynch finished second with 69 votes. Jungbauer was third with 33. Downey racked up 232 votes.