Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Baird Helgeson
Amid mounting evidence of party disarray and financial difficulties, Republican State Party Chairman Tony Sutton announced his resignation Friday.
"I have decided to resign as State Chair effective 5PM today. I have enjoyed being State Chair, but feel it is best for my family to move on," he said on Twitter.
After winning control of the House and Senate and coming within a whisker of the governorship, the state party is deeply in debt, and some top Republicans have been losing confidence in Sutton's ability to guide the party heading into the tumultuous 2012 elections.
The turmoil comes a day before a party central committee meeting, where GOP activists plan on scrutinizing the party's budget and its unmanaged debt. Activists have also recently eyed Sutton's $100,000 yearly salary, which he recently voluntarily cut to $90,000.
Sutton has been under intense scrutiny over party finances the last year. Sutton is widely credited with helping the party take control of the Legislature for the first time in a generation and only barely losing the governor's race. But the effort plunged the party deep in debt and Sutton has proven unable to dig out.
In the face of more than $500,000 in debt, the party has shed more than a third of its staff recently and laid off its paid executive director, Ryan Griffin, this week.
Facing a tough and expensive battle to defeat fundraising dynamo Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and hold control of the Legislature, Sutton has been under mounting pressure to turn around party finances.
The state Republican executive committee convened in late October to privately review party finances and weak fundraising numbers.
Some party officials were surprised by both the size of the debt and continued spending. Sutton took the helm of the state GOP in 2009 with more than $1 million in the bank. By January of this year, the party owed creditors $750,000, and still remains more than $500,000 in debt.
Federal campaign reports released in early November show the party is still burning through money faster than it is taking it in.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. John Kline's campaign came to the aid of the party on the last day of the reporting period, contributing $10,000. A political organization that supports Kline, the Freedom and Security PAC, gave $5,000 the same day.
Under pressure Sutton, who was unanimously re-elected less than a year ago, party the group took a more active role and clipped his authority.
Sutton has said fundraising, particularly among small dollar donors, had been a struggle, but said the debt was worth it to win control of the Legislature.
"I wouldn't trade the (legislative) majorities for having zero debt," he said earlier this week.
Sutton and state party leaders from around the country have also been hobbled by the emergence of new political expenditure groups that can spend more freely on campaigns, with far fewer restrictions that traditional political parties.
Earlier this week, Sutton, who did not immediately return calls from the Star Tribune Friday, downplayed questions about his future and the readiness of the party to take on the 2012 election fight.
"I just feel like we are getting ready to the next election," he said of the internal party turmoil.
But some party officials feared the GOP would not be prepared for the 2012 election fight.
"The issue is we are still in poor, very, very poor, financial shape and in fact haven't really paid off anything in the over the year," said Pat Anderson, the Republican national committeewoman. "We have negative cash on hand…It's really bad."
Given the issues at the party, Anderson said, "I don't know how big of a player the party can be, frankly," in the 2012 elections or if the legislative caucuses and outside groups would have to pick up the slack.
Now, some insiders fear without Sutton the party is damaged.
Michael Brodkorb, the former deputy party chair under Sutton, said his resignation was a "tremendous loss" to the party.
"Tony Sutton woke up every day and spent every waking moment of his day trying to better this party," Brodkorb said. Without Sutton in charge, Brodkorb said outside groups and the legislative caucuses might have to take on a larger role, if the party cannot.
On Saturday, the party's central committee is due to meet to approve the 2012 budget and elect a new deputy chair of the party.
"There are a lot of people with questions about that and the activists want to know where we are financially," Jeff Johnson, Republican national committeeman, said earlier this week. He said then that Saturday's meeting may be contentious but the turmoil would leave the party ready to take on the 2012 fight.
Johnson is chairing a committee to review all party finances and contracts. He said his full report is not yet ready.
Update: Here's the resignation letter Sutton sent to GOP activists Friday: