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With the state GOP mired in debt, candidates for the party’s vacant top post have been slow to emerge

Paul Demko//December 9, 2011

With the state GOP mired in debt, candidates for the party’s vacant top post have been slow to emerge

Paul Demko//December 9, 2011

Sen. David Hann, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, might run for the Republican Party’s top job. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Who wants to run the Republican Party of Minnesota?

That’s the question that has been generating a steady stream of rumors and trial balloons since state party Chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned earlier this month. But despite a slew of names tossed into the ether, few potential candidates appear to be seriously weighing a bid.

News Corp. executive Bill Guidera, who is the party’s finance chairman, quickly shot down suggestions that he might seek the post. Former Republican National Committee member Brian Sullivan also opted to take a pass on the race. “I’m not running,” he told Capitol Report.

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who serves on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, left the door only slightly more ajar. “I haven’t thought about it at any length, and my inclination is not to run for the state chair position,” Sviggum said.

Other potential candidates ruling out runs: former state Rep. Paul Kohls; U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s chief of staff, Andy Parrish; GOP activist David FitzSimmons; former Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb; and Deputy Chairwoman Kelly Fenton.

The seeming lack of interest in the post is perhaps not surprising given the party’s financial problems. In recent months it has been mired in debt. Its most recent federal campaign finance report shows $519,000 in debt and a cash-on-hand balance of negative $121,000. That doesn’t include more than $100,000 remaining to be paid on a fine to the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance reporting violations. In addition, it was revealed last week that the state party is also on the hook for $450,000 in unpaid legal bills stemming from the 2010 gubernatorial recount. All told, the party’s debt almost certainly exceeds $1 million. To put that figure in perspective, it’s more than 20 percent of the state GOP’s total proposed 2012 budget.

The grim financial situation makes the selection of the next party chair, which is scheduled to occur at a statewide GOP gathering on Dec. 31, all the more crucial. GOP insiders argue that the person chosen must have significant business ties and fundraising skills, along with the ability to navigate factional divides within the GOP base.

“It makes it even more important that we have a financial person, a business person who’s heavily connected to the donor community, someone who can go in and clean it up,” said Pat Anderson, a member of the state party’s executive committee. “We do not need a politician, a former politician, a political hack. That would be a disaster.”

In the days immediately after Sutton’s resignation, the name most often mentioned as a potential candidate was Mike Vekich. He is highly regarded as a business turnaround specialist, with a resume that includes director of the Minnesota State Lottery and chairman of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 21st Century Tax Reform Commission.

Although Vekich is known as a moderate, even staunchly conservative GOP activists were touting him as a chairman candidate. As one put it: “If I get hit by a car, I’m not going to ask the doctor what his political persuasion is. I want him to put me back together.”

Vekich did not return two calls from Capitol Report seeking comment. But all signs — including the word of two sources who say they have spoken directly to Vekich — say that he will not run. One source pointed out that Vekich is rumored to be interested in a run for governor in 2014, which would augur against running for a post in which he would surely risk alienating some elements of the notoriously fractious party base.
So who is left? Veteran GOP political strategist Pat Shortridge could be a formidable contender. His resume includes serving as campaign manager and chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy. Since 2007 he has run a political consulting firm with clients that have included U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.

On Thursday, Shortridge told Capitol Report that he was “seriously considering” running for the post but had not made a final decision. “There are a lot of things that need fixing and need solving,” he said of the state party. “It’s not just a matter of the bottom line balance sheet, as bad as that is.”

Another intriguing possibility is state Sen. David Hann. The chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee said on Thursday that several people have spoken with him about running for the party’s top post. Hann expects to make a decision in the next 10 days.

“It’s not something that I have been out looking to do,” he said. “I certainly have plenty to do in the Legislature. But I think all of us want the party to be as effective as we can make it.”

On Friday morning rumblings emerged about another possible candidate from the ranks of the Legislature: freshman GOP Sen. and former talk radio host Dave Thompson. “I have not specifically been contacted by anyone inside the party or anything lke that,” said Thompson. “At this point I’m not going to say I absolutely would rule it out. Obviously there are issues with the party that need to be resolved.”

Former state Rep. Mike Osskopp is another possible contender. Also a veteran radio broadcaster, Osskopp spent four terms in the House representing Lake City. More recently he served as U.S. Rep. John Kline’s district director and runs a government relations firm.

Osskopp did not respond to a request for comment by Capitol Report. But he told Minnesota Public Radio that he is considering a run and expects to decide by Sunday.

The last name frequently mentioned by GOP insiders is Brandon Sawalich. He is a senior vice president with Starkey Labs, an Eden Prairie-based company that produces hearing aids. His mother and father-in-law are big-dollar GOP donors. Sawalich ran for chairman in 2009 but dropped out before balloting began. “I’ve been approached and have talked to some people,” he said Thursday.

While the party chair position might not look particularly enticing, the dire state of the GOP’s finances could actually provide an opportunity to make sweeping changes to the party’s infrastructure. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for someone,” Anderson said. “If it was the right person, I think they would have the full support of [the executive committee]. They could come in and really clean it up.”

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