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On Dec. 31 Republican activists from across the state will gather in St. Cloud to elect a new party chair. The meeting will cap a tumultuous end to 2011 for the state GOP. Earlier this month Tony Sutton suddenly resigned from the party’s top post. Revelations soon followed that the party is likely more than $1 million in debt.

Sawalich, Osskopp top field of possible GOP chair candidates

Brandon Sawalich (left), 36, wants to replace Tony Sutton as chairman of the state GOP. (Left, submitted photo. Right, staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Activists must decide whether fundraising skills or campaign experience are more important

On Dec. 31 Republican activists from across the state will gather in St. Cloud to elect a new party chair. The meeting will cap a tumultuous end to 2011 for the state GOP.

Earlier this month Tony Sutton suddenly resigned from the party’s top post. Revelations soon followed that the party is likely more than $1 million in debt. The unpaid bills included $519,000 in financial obligations listed on the party’s most recent federal campaign finance report, and another $450,000 in legal bills stemming from the 2010 gubernatorial recount that party insiders believed until recently the state GOP was not ultimately responsible for paying. (It was only after Sutton’s resignation that he confirmed he had signed an agreement making the party liable for those debts.) The party also still owes more than $100,000 to the Federal Election Commission for a fine incurred for campaign finance reporting violations.

Whoever takes over the state’s top post will face the vexing task of stabilizing the party’s finances ahead of key 2012 elections that will include a presidential contest, at least one congressional battleground race and campaigns for all 201 state legislative seats. The incoming chair will at least have some help: It was announced this week that Mike Vekich, a highly regarded business turnaround specialist who chaired Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 21st Century Tax Reform Commission, has taken on an advisory role with the party to help turn around its troubled finances.

“I think there’s widespread agreement that somebody who brings credibility to the business community and brings credibility to the donor community is really paramount, and there is less emphasis on ideology,” said Gregg Peppin, a veteran GOP campaign strategist. “The first goal is to get a handle on what the number is and what type of internal controls may or may not have to be added.”

Sawalich piles up endorsements

Only two candidates have officially entered the fray: Brandon Sawalich and Todd McIntyre. Sawalich is a senior vice president at Starkey Labs, an Eden Prairie-based manufacturer of hearing aids. The 36-year-old Eden Prairie resident previously served as finance chairman for the state GOP. He also ran for party chair in 2009 but dropped out of the contest owing to work obligations. Sawalich’s family members are major GOP donors: His mother, Tani Austin, and stepfather, Starkey Chief Executive Officer Bill Austin, hosted a fundraiser for President George W. Bush in 2007.

“I want to restore confidence back in the party and obviously help Republicans win elections,” Sawalich said. “I will work hard and tirelessly and finish the term out.”

Sawalich can already boast some formidable supporters. Former party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner and veteran GOP strategist Pat Shortridge, both of whom considered a run for the party’s top post, are now backing his candidacy. Legislative leaders and committee chairs such as Sen. David Hann and Rep. Keith Downey have also endorsed Sawalich. His fundraising skills and business ties are seen as formidable. The only significant knock on Sawalich is a lack of hands-on campaign experience. “That’s the one void that’s missing from Brandon’s background,” noted one GOP insider who preferred to remain anonymous. “Once the party’s finances get cleaned up, there’s going to have to be somebody at the helm who knows how to spend the money.”

McIntyre is virtually unknown in GOP activist circles and did not return a call from Capitol Report seeking comment. In a letter announcing his candidacy for party chair, he cited his experience in real estate and amateur sports as assets. “If you desire a person who has detailed financial skills to understand how to best maximize revenues and minimize expenses, I am your person,” McIntyre wrote.

Osskopp, others still weighing run

Three other potential candidates are still weighing their plans. Mike Osskopp is a former four-term House member who represented Lake City and earned a reputation as a voluble debater. More recently he served as district director for U.S. Rep. John Kline and currently runs a government relations firm. Osskopp has been calling GOP delegates and expects to make a decision about running by Saturday. Unlike Sawalich, he would bring significant campaign experience, but he is seen as a less-skilled fundraiser.

“We’ve got people who can help us pay off the debt,” Osskopp said. “I don’t see that as a major problem. … If we give donors who like to give to Republicans a party that they see value in, they’ll take care of the debt.”
Another potential contender is Terry McCall, who is chairman of the GOP in the 2nd Congressional District and sits on the party’s executive committee. McCall was still weighing a bid as of Tuesday but said he expected to make a decision within 48 hours. (Visit the Briefing Room blog at politicsinmn.com for updates on the race.) He is also a board member of the Republican Liberty Caucus and could garner significant support from the libertarian wing of the party. A Facebook page set up to encourage a McCall campaign had attracted 71 members as of Tuesday.

“I’m just astounded,” McCall said. “I feel wonderful that people would think of me along those terms. I look upon myself as the darkest of dark horses.”

The final potential challenger is conservative talk show host Sue Jeffers. She angered many in the party by challenging GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a primary in 2006 and has been a fierce critic of the GOP’s former leadership team. “I don’t want this to be a coronation,” Jeffers said. “I want it to be very transparent and open.”

Other candidates could still come forward, although most insiders think any serious challenger would already need to be lining up delegate votes. Whoever emerges from the GOP scrum will have a formidable task in fixing the party’s finances and preparing for the 2012 campaign season. “It’s got to be someone that’s going to, for one thing, bring some unity and stability to things,” said David FitzSimmons, GOP chairman for the 6th Congressional District. “The big thing is the confidence; they have to restore the confidence.”

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