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Republicans launch PR offensive as both sides lawyer up

Briana Bierschbach//November 5, 2010

Republicans launch PR offensive as both sides lawyer up

Briana Bierschbach//November 5, 2010

Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Tony Sutton
Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Tony Sutton

The morning after the election, Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Tony Sutton and Deputy Chair Michael Brodkorb gathered the bleary-eyed Capitol press – who had been sitting up into the early morning hours waiting for a verdict on the Minnesota gubernatorial election – and began sounding off on the prospect of an automatic recount. Calling out the alleged failures of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie during the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, Sutton and Brodkorb said Republicans weren’t going to get “rolled,” or have the race “stolen” this time around.

“We are going to be really aggressive and really hold [Ritchie’s] feet to the fire,” he said. “We are not going to get rolled this time. It’s our turn to turn every stone.”

But most disagree with the comparison to the 2008 debacle. With 100 percent of polling precincts reporting, the unofficial vote tally in Minnesota governor’s race shows DFLer Mark Dayton holding an 8,854-vote lead over Republican Tom Emmer. That’s a lot more than 725 votes, which was the lead Republican Norm Coleman had held over Democrat Al Franken after election night in 2008.  Some say the Republican Party will have to be more aggressive this time around to keep the base committed and to convince the broader public there’s merit in the long-shot recount challenge.

“The race for governor is not over,” Sutton said at the press conference, detailing reports from across the state of malfunctioning machines, unsecured ballot bins and a 400,000-vote error in Hennepin County that, when corrected, gave 60,000 new votes to Emmer. “Something doesn’t smell right” when the party takes control of both the state House and Senate and wins in the Eighth Congressional District but loses the governor’s race, he said.

Sutton railed at Ritchie, calling him an “ACORN activist” who had two years to get the state ready for this election and failed to do so. (There was a strong whiff of politics in the words of Ritchie, who repeatedly referred to the “taxpayer-funded” recount.)

This time, Sutton vowed, Republicans won’t be “out-lawyered” as they were in the 2008 Senate recount. In addition to Coleman/Franken veteran Tony Trimble, they have enlisted the help of high-profile Washington, D.C. attorney Michael Toner. His career has included five years as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, a stint as the chief general counsel for the Republican National Committee and the role of general counsel for the Bush-Cheney 2000 transition team. His inclusion suggests that Republicans have taken care to enlist a formidable rainmaker for Emmer’s legal defense fundraising.

Republican Attorney Fritz Knaak said it’s going to be tough for Emmer to pick up the needed 9,000 votes, making Sutton’s roll as a party “motivator” all the more important.  Knaak played a similar roll in 2008 on Coleman’s recount team, organizing and holding press conferences daily to keep their message fresh and in public.

“Sutton has a very particular role he has to fulfill here, not the least of which is to keep everyone focused and getting charged to get this done,” he said.  “It’s going to take a lot of volunteers and a lot of fundraising to take on this recount. You don’t get that by being quiet.”

Capitol lobbyist Brian Rice, who has worked on 16 recounts himself, said part of Sutton’s aim is to make the race seem closer than it is. “I can understand why the party chair is trying to whip up the party loyalists and get people excited,” he said. “But we’ve had much closer races than this.”

Fredrikson and Byron attorney David Lillehaug, who played a key role in the 2008 recount and has already been tapped for Dayton’s legal team, said Sutton was just “blowing smoke.” “He just decided to throw bombs without any substance behind them,” said Lillehaug. “His goal is to cast doubt on the election process. I think it’s a sign they need to cast doubt until they can try and find some evidence.”

With a nearly 9,000-vote edge, Democrats are taking the opposite route, saying they have faith in the electoral process and a revamped absentee balloting system passed by the Legislature last session. “This is about the integrity of the system and making sure every vote counts,” Dayton said at a news conference later Wednesday. He demurred when asked how actively he and the DFL would participate in the recount process.

Republicans beat the bushes

In contrast, the Republican Party has launched a recount hotline and an email address for reports of suspicious activity. In one of several emails sent out to voters, the GOP sought evidence or personal stories of any “irregularities” noticed on Election Day, while another asked them to contact the party regarding absentee ballots. “If you are a Republican activist and voted absentee, we want to ensure that your ballot was counted,” one email read.

Democrats have assembled a legal all-star team of their own to handle the case. Two key lawyers in the Franken recount team – Lillehaug and Lockridge Grindal Nauen attorney Charlie Nauen – will head up the effort. WIN Minnesota head Ken Martin, who also managed DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch’s campaign in 2006, will manage recount proceedings for Democrats, and the executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, Denise Cardinal, will be the recount communications director.

Dayton said he wants to speed up the recount as much as possible to ensure that he can be seated by January 15, when the governor can opt in to early expansion of Medicaid. But there is speculation of another political game being played by the GOP: Some fear Republicans are trying to keep Dayton out until after the 2011 legislative  session starts, which by law would leave Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the helm to work with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

But most Democrats and Republicans alike dismiss the idea as unlikely and a bad political move for the GOP. “That would be the most ill-conceived, ill-advised strategy,” Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP activist, said. “People would be upset and it would totally backfire on Republicans.”

Knaak agrees. “Of course it’s politics, there are all kinds of politics in it,” he said. “But that would be an unwise move, and, honestly, I would be surprised if this thing is not wrapped up by December.”

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