Minnesota Republicans find themselves again in the political wilderness after Tuesday's midterm election, shut out of all statewide offices and unexpectedly cast into the minority in the Legislature.
It's a stunning reversal of fortunes in a year predicted to be the strongest environment for Republicans in more than a decade. For even the most seasoned party veterans, the path forward after 2022 is murkier than ever.
"Some of the margins were close, but the reality is Republicans should have run away with this, and they just didn't," said Amy Koch, a GOP strategist and former Senate majority leader.
In interviews with more than a dozen Republican activists, consultants, candidates and party officials, many blamed the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade in June for blunting a predicted red wave. For others, the issue of abortion this midterm cycle merely put a bright light on a party that's historically been outmatched in fundraising and organizing in Minnesota and one that's on the wrong side of a demographic shift.
"Minnesota is clearly not a red state — or even a purple state. If it were, the path forward for Republicans would be simple. The red or purple state playbooks don't usually work in blue states," said former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Minnesota Republican to win a statewide race in 2006. "A different and more nuanced approach is needed here."
Looking to 2024, some Republicans say the party needs to recast its place in Minnesota politics, rethinking organizing, the candidates it nominates and how they reach a broader coalition of voters.
Suburbs, women decided power
Many Republicans interviewed say they believe the higher turnout of younger voters and women in the metro area contributed to losses statewide and helped Democrats keep the Minnesota House and reclaim the majority in the state Senate.
In the battle to control Congress, national Republicans poured millions into flipping Minnesota's closely divided Second District. But incumbent DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig won re-election by about 5 percentage points with a strong showing in the suburbs.
"When people go in and do the autopsy, it's going to be women 18-40 voted heavily, heavily Democrat and really showed up big time," said GOP political consultant Billy Grant, who worked with Second District Republican candidate Tyler Kistner.
Republican Tom Weiler lost his race to Democratic U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips for the suburban Third District by around 19 percentage points.
"Inflation, crime and education are still important," Weiler said. "I think issues of abortion and a sort of Democratic-slash-media generated issue of that there's a threat to democracy were clearly more impactful than I think most people thought they would be."
At the top of the ticket, Republican governor candidate Scott Jensen was defined early in the race by past comments he made promising to ban abortion. He shifted his stance after Roe was overturned, but it wasn't enough to change perceptions.
"Women didn't talk about it much, they didn't do a bunch of marches and protests, they didn't post on social media, they probably didn't even tell their husbands," Koch said. "But they were ticked off and they went out to vote."
Moving away from 'abrasive'
If there was any one factor that doomed his and other state Republicans' hopes, it was "the timing of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade," Jensen said.
Republicans also need to consistently engage with communities of color and encourage young people to join the party, he said. Reflecting on his own run, Jensen said he regretted numerous campaign-trail blunders. He sparked public backlash when he compared COVID restrictions to measures during the rise of Nazi Germany and falsely suggested Minnesota schools had litter boxes for students who identified as "furries."
"Sometimes in the moment, I would choose a word or a metaphor that, on reflection, didn't advance the point I was trying to make," he said.
Jensen and Republican Secretary of State candidate Kim Crockett — who said the 2020 election was rigged — lost their races by between 7 and 9 percentage points. Both were among candidates across the country who were endorsed by Donald Trump and lost.
Republicans need to move beyond Trump and support unifying candidates, particularly younger ones, who can win metro area districts by focusing on "kitchen table" issues, said Minnesota Young Republicans Chair Debjyoti Dwivedy.
"It's high time the GOP looks forward," he said.
Minnesota College Republicans Chair Nia Moore said while she liked Jensen, his style of campaigning fit better in Texas or Florida.
"An abrasive conservative approach just doesn't work here," she said. "As of right now, we are a blue state and the 'own the Libs' messaging doesn't resonate with most Minnesotans."
But Republican attorney general candidate Jim Schultz and state auditor nominee Ryan Wilson — both political newcomers — got within a single percentage point of winning their races. Wilson came within 8,500 votes, the closest any Republican has come to winning a statewide office in more than 10 years.
Jennifer DeJournett, a consultant for Wilson's campaign, said his nonconfrontational style fit Minnesotans' temperament. Their strategy focused on targeting persuadable voters.
"The hyper partisan on either side would be locked in," DeJournett said. "We were singing the siren song to those individuals who are those ticket splitters and the independent voter, and we almost did it."
Behind in organizing, cash
It wasn't all bad news for the GOP, with the party easily holding on to southern Minnesota's congressional seat. Republican U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad, who won an August special election, kept his seat in the midterms by double digits. But Tuesday's results showed that translating that success statewide is a challenge.
"Republicans had a little bit of an overconfidence problem," said Aaron Farris, chair of the First Congressional District Republicans.
Boosting the party's turnout game will be critical, with not enough people living in solidly red rural areas to make up for the growing urban cores and blue-trending suburbs. Eight greater Minnesota counties flipped from DFL Gov. Tim Walz in 2018 to Jensen in 2022, but that wasn't enough to make up for the turnout for Walz in metro counties.
"The reality is Republicans cannot lose Hennepin and Ramsey counties by hundreds of thousands of votes and expect to make it up in other parts of the state," said Marty Seifert, a former state House Republican leader.
The DFL Party also raised more than $19 million this year compared to $1 million by the state GOP Party, according to campaign finance filings from late October.
But much of the money fueling this election came through independent expenditure groups, like Alliance for a Better Minnesota. Of the top 10 spenders among those groups, seven were DFL-aligned. Their total spending of $32 million was more than six times that of the three GOP groups.
In recent elections, Alliance for Better Minnesota has been spending $10 million to $20 million to paint the Republican candidate for governor as "an evil monster" and that's unlikely to change, said GOP strategist Gregg Peppin.
He said Republicans need to find a similar big-dollar donor or think about different messaging to counteract the fundraising disadvantage. They also need to financially strengthen their state party, but that's difficult to do without someone holding statewide office, he said.
"The Republican state party will never have the resources of the Democrats — or even other Republican state parties — so is it more of a guerilla warfare type of operation? Are we trying to do one or two things really, really well?" he asked, suggesting things like candidate recruitment or having good voter data.
Pawlenty said Minnesota should look at examples from GOP playbooks in other blue states, but the 2022 election also begs for deeper introspection.
"If you haven't closed a sale with your product in more than 15 years, it's long past the time to get a better product, better marketing or both," he said. "For statewide elections, that's where Minnesota's Republican Party now finds itself."
Staff writer Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.