Still reeling from months of debt, the executive board of the Republican Party of Minnesota held a closed-door meeting Thursday night to discuss party finances and its path forward.

State Party Chairman Tony Sutton emerged after more than an hour and declared it a "positive meeting" but declined to release any further details.

Despite Sutton's assurances, some GOP leaders are surprised the party remains in a $533,000 financial hole.

"It's how much?" said state Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing. "It appears we have some fundraising opportunities we need to address."

Sutton said he made a calculated gamble to spend heavily on the 2010 elections and that it paid off politically. Republicans won control of the Legislature for the first time in a generation and then were able to block DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed income tax increases.

"It was totally worth it to not raise taxes," Sutton said.

But it left the party deeply in debt. Sutton took the helm of the state GOP in 2009 with more than $1 million in the bank and by January of this year the party owed creditors $750,000.

A recent Federal Election Commission report showed that the party continues to burn through money faster than it is taking it in. The party also racked up significant expenses in the gubernatorial recount between Dayton and GOP candidate Tom Emmer. Although the party is not legally obligated to pay those debts, several party officials believe the GOP is ethically bound to do so.

The state GOP's financial struggles come as the party faces expensive challenges, including trying to knock off Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who remains one of the state's most popular politicians and is a fundraising dynamo. Sutton must also lead the state's effort to unseat President Obama.

Political parties have found it challenging to raise money in the weak economy and the emergence of new political expenditure groups that can raise huge amounts of money with few restrictions. The Minnesota DFL Party is about $242,000 in debt, according to federal records.

Sutton, 44, has run into problems before for his management of the party finances.

In August, the GOP said it would pay a $170,000 fine for a series of federal campaign finance violations between 2006 and 2008, mostly while Sutton was treasurer.

For three years, the party failed to properly report debts and deposits on its federal campaign finance reports. It also inappropriately transferred money between accounts.

Sutton has enjoyed broad support among party activists in the past and GOP delegates overwhelmingly re-elected him as chairman in April.

In July, Sutton said he would start taking a $100,000 annual salary after holding the post without pay for two years.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, is owed money for legal work he did for the party, but remains sympathetic.

"It's tough to raise money anywhere," he said. "Do I have a bone to pick with the party right now? The answer is no."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288