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RNC upset: Johnson spanks Emmer on one ballot

Charley Shaw//April 20, 2011

RNC upset: Johnson spanks Emmer on one ballot

Charley Shaw//April 20, 2011

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, left, and  Tom Emmer.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, left, and Tom Emmer.

Former GOP nominee got outworked; lobbying ties hurt as well

When Republicans from around the state flocked to the Ramada Mall of America last Saturday, there appeared to be little question who would win the race to replace Brian Sullivan as Minnesota’s man on the Republican National Committee. Tom Emmer’s entry into the field, coming just months after he carried his party’s nomination for governor, made him the candidate to beat. Emmer, the thinking went, had support from the party’s activist base as well as the backing of some of the biggest names in Minnesota Republican politics, including Michele Bachmann, Norm Coleman and Vin Weber.

But just less than a year after winning the gubernatorial endorsement in Minneapolis last April, Emmer lost the RNC election on a single ballot to former state Rep. and current Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.

“The fact that he lost speaks to the sense they are not going to reward him for closely losing what they feel they should have won [in 2010],” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

In a separate race to replace the retiring Evie Axdahl, former State Auditor Pat Anderson beat three other candidates on the second ballot to gain the spot as RNC committeewoman.

The State Central Committee gathering consisted of 349 delegates and alternates. Anderson and Johnson needed a simple 50 percent-plus-one majority. Johnson won on the first ballot with 186 votes to Emmer’s 154. (A third candidate, Phil Herwig, got two.)

The polemicists within the right-wing blogosphere, who had championed Emmer’s candidacy over that of Marty Seifert in last year’s endorsement battle, immediately wrote harsh postmortems and predicted the end of his career in the Minnesota Republican Party.

Rudy Takala, a Tea Party activist from Pine County, wrote unconventionally that Emmer’s loss was handed down by disaffected grass-roots Republicans who believed that he had fallen under the spell of party and legislative leaders.

“Unfortunately for Tom, 30 conservatives who voted for Pat Anderson thought their prospects would be better taking a chance with the other guy,” Takala wrote.

Another Emmer detractor, John Gilmore, wrote that the loss was nothing less than a “seismic shock to the established political order in the party.”

Gilmore said delegates took out their frustration with Emmer’s 2010 loss in an election where Republicans dominated nationwide. “It represents the beginning of the end for those self-serving types – there is no other word – who insist that far-right principles are to be preferred over winning elections,” Gilmore wrote on his blog.

Outworked

But the howls from the party’s anti-establishment bloggers don’t tell the story of Emmer’s loss and Johnson’s victory at State Central.

Several GOP insiders said they watched Emmer underestimate his opponent and run a less motivated campaign than he displayed during the race for the governor’s endorsement.

“If Emmer had simply worked harder at the hospitality suites and been on the floor, he would have rounded up maybe 15 more votes and it would have been closer. In the end, he didn’t do enough nuts-and-bolts, face-to-face work with delegates,” according to one longtime GOP insider.

Emmer did not respond to a request for an interview.

Johnson ran an aggressive effort that included a strong floor presence at the State Central Committee meeting. In some respects, the RNC election was a rematch of the 2010 GOP State Convention fight in which Emmer beat Seifert. Key operatives for Seifert, including campaign veterans Gregg Peppin and Ben Golnik, helped execute a thorough floor strategy. “A lot of the Seifert team was in [the Johnson campaign’s] red T-shirts, and that made a difference,” one attendee noted.

Pre-State Central conjecture held that a strong showing by Johnson could touch off a multiple-ballot barnburner. When Anderson, who is also a staunch conservative in the Emmer vein, won on the second ballot, the expectation persisted that Emmer was the favorite. All candidates made speeches, with long-shot Herwig going first, Emmer second and Johnson speaking last.

Johnson’s victory on the first ballot left the assembled delegates and party apparatchiks stunned. In the words of one participant, “There were some stone solid and grim faces coming out of the teller room when the first ballot was counted.”

Lobbying job drew resentment

Emmer’s lackadaisical bid for RNC surprised many Republicans, because the race did feature substantive accusations directed at Emmer over lobbying, campaign funding decisions and media.

The lobbying issue stemmed from the announcement this winter that Emmer had registered to lobby for the Minnesota Radiation Oncology Physicians. That rankled many Republicans – not only because Emmer was turning to lobbying, a profession not much favored among the GOP base, but because of the side he landed on. MROP has spent years lobbying to block the efforts of another group to construct a new radiation facility in the Twin Cities. In signing on with them, Emmer was thought by many to be turning his back on Republican faith in free markets and competition – and on a specific party platform plank that called for more competition as the path to health care savings.

As a legislator, Emmer voted to lift the moratorium on new radiation facilities. His choice to represent the other side as a lobbyist was a subject of discussion at State Central. The only critical piece of literature to circulate on the State Central floor, which was distributed by Tea Party activist and former legislative candidate Nathan Hansen, lambasted Emmer for lobbying for MROP.

On the media front, Emmer stoked controversy over the winter because of his appearances on conservative talk radio host Sue Jeffers’ show on KLTK-FM. Though Emmer generally refrained from criticizing his former colleagues, he offended many simply by appearing on the air with Jeffers, who routinely excoriated House Republicans for their not-sufficiently-conservative stance on the state general fund budget. Republicans who were present at State Central said there were concerns that Emmer’s media activities undercut the role of an RNC member, who is tasked with strengthening the party. Any damage from that criticism, however, was likely blunted by the fact that House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch were on hand to nominate Emmer.

On the campaign finance front, Emmer drew the ire of some in the party by not using the $46,000 in leftover cash to help the state GOP pay off its legal expenses from the statewide ballot recount that followed last year’s general election. While the issue of financial support would be mere background noise in the context of a campaign for public office, the issue was a sore spot to some party activists.

In the aftermath of his upset win, Johnson has been credited for making an intense push to win over delegates both in the weeks leading up to and at State Central. On Saturday, Johnson supporters handed out M&Ms to the delegates as a means of promoting his three M’s slogan: Mission, Message and Money. Attendees noted that Emmer had flags made to give to delegates in support of his candidacy. But some remarked that Emmer was slower to work the phones with delegates and skimped on props like the hockey jerseys and Rice Krispie treats that made his campaign a success at last year’s state convention.

In tone, said Peppin, Johnson contrasted himself to the flamboyant Emmer: “Jeff’s message was that we weren’t electing a homecoming king. We were electing somebody to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work needed on the Republican National Committee.”

Notwithstanding the intraparty rebuke, Emmer appears to be staying on the Republican stage. He immediately dusted himself off and made an appearance in Willmar at the tax day rally organized by the Tea Party, according to the West Central Tribune. And he was up bright and early Tuesday morning to spend a couple of hours on KLTK-FM with conservative talk show host Bob Davis.

The speculation that Emmer pursued the RNC bid as a prelude to another gubernatorial run in 2014 hasn’t died down with the State Central vote. There’s also speculation about a run for Congress depending on 6th District incumbent Michele Bachmann’s plans and the outcome of redistricting. One insider said the State Central loss could benefit Emmer because he won’t get sucked into the internal party functions that go along with serving on the RNC.

“I think in some respects it may be, for what he’s rumored to be interested in, a blessing in disguise,” the insider said.

Come what may, however, the former state representative and candidate for statewide office will have to plot his political future without a title.

“I think he becomes Minnesota’s Sarah Palin in the sense he’s going to be the Tea Party favorite,” said Schultz, the professor. “I think he’s going to be the person who is doing the critique from the outside, and that becomes his new role.”

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