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Leaders and activists in the Republican Party of Minnesota haven’t had much time to think about elections lately. In a whirlwind series of events, the party lost its chairman, deputy chairman and secretary/treasurer in the span of three months amid mounting questions about the party’s finances.

State GOP campaign ops: Just the basics

Pat Shortridge, the chairman of the state Republican Party, is taking over as the party cuts its budget for paid advertising, campaign staffers and aid to legislative candidates in the 2012 elections. (Staff photo: Briana Bierschbach)

Cash-strapped RPM will downscale its role in 2012 elections

Leaders and activists in the Republican Party of Minnesota haven’t had much time to think about elections lately.

In a whirlwind series of events, the party lost its chairman, deputy chairman and secretary/treasurer in the span of three months amid mounting questions about the party’s finances. After an internal review of the books, the RPM now faces a staggering $2 million in debt and the looming threat of potentially large campaign finance fines. Looking ahead to the 2012 election season, the state GOP figures to have little money to spend on the standard costs of campaigning.

Other factors outside the control of the party are also helping to tie its hands with respect to the 2012 campaign trail. That includes the loss of a key small donation program and the rise in prominence of third-party expenditure groups. Both have hit the party’s pocketbook hard, sources say.

But Republican activists and leaders say the party will play a role in the 2012 elections, albeit a more narrowly defined one that emphasizes the GOP’s grass-roots voter identification and get-out-the-vote functions. The direction will be mostly determined by a new leadership team at the helm, including Deputy Chairwoman Kelly Fenton and Chairman Pat Shortridge. Shortridge did not return a call seeking comment.

“Every election year as a party we have to reassess what we are going to do and how we are going to do it,” said RNC Committeeman Jeff Johnson, who helped lead the internal review of the party’s finances. “We will have to go with the flow and see what the year brings from a fundraising standpoint. People have been holding back because there was confusion and there were rumors floating around. Now that we’ve set everything up out front, I think that will change. I’m sure we will be a big player, but we have to focus our efforts.”

RPM budget slashes campaign spending

The 2012 budget passed by activists at a Dec. 31 meeting paints a dismal picture. While the budgeting period covers only the first five months of the year, it doesn’t include many of the election-related functions of the 2010 season, which saw Republicans take control of both legislative chambers and unseat Iron Range DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar.

More than $613,000 was spent on paid advertisements in 2010, which included television advertising for former Rep. Tom Emmer’s campaign for governor and radio advertisements for constitutional officers’ campaigns. The party also spent money on a pro-Emmer and anti-Mark Dayton billboard campaign. In the 2012 budget, no money has been set aside for paid media.
The same goes for funds to aid legislative candidates. Under the regime of former party Chairman Tony Sutton and Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb, the party spent about $1.3 million on local races in 2010. Some of that money was spent on the party’s more than 275 independent expenditures mailings for legislative races, Sutton said in a December letter announcing his resignation. So far the new leaders have not opted to set money aside for local races in their budget.

The party will also cut down on campaign staffers. Three $1,000-per-month interns will take over former full-time jobs with the party. That includes the position of field coordinator and researcher, and one intern will be split between communications and political operations. The party will also have one full-time media relations staffer instead of two.

Johnson said the party’s expenses will likely change as the election season nears, and he hopes the party can add full-time staffers as it gets closer to November. But that will depend on the fundraising climate and the direction of Shortridge, he said.

Fundraising efforts will take a serious hit, too. In 2010 the Republican Party of Minnesota spent $4.3 million on donor telemarketing, direct mail and the major donor program. For the first five months of 2012, the party has budgeted slightly more than $1 million for that purpose.

Outside factors hurt GOP fundraising

The lack of funds for campaigning, Republicans say, can be attributed at least partly to the loss of the Political Contribution Refund (PCR) program and the rise of third-party groups in elections.

Under the PCR program, contributions to a Minnesota political party or candidate qualified for a state-paid refund of up to $50 a year for individuals or $100 for a married couple. But Gov. Tim Pawlenty unallotted the program from the budget in 2009, and it remains unfunded today.
The loss of the program — and the party’s failure to adjust properly — was one of Sutton’s regrets as party chairman. “Losing the [PCR] program has had a devastating effect on our small dollar fundraising programs as compared to the past,” he said, adding that party finance staff estimates the GOP lost $2 million in revenue in 2010 and $1 million in 2011 in the program’s absence.

“That’s the thing that really injured Tony Sutton’s ability to manage the party’s finances,” one GOP operative said. “The GOP really capitalized on the PCR program.”

The loss of the program will also hurt as general fundraising becomes more difficult. “It’s tough to get people to invest in a party that’s that deep in debt,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, who has spent the first year of his chairmanship working to bring the DFL’s debt down from about $725,00 to about $225,000. “Donors want their money to go to electing candidates. Why would they put money into an organization that is that far in debt?”

In the post-Citizens United era, several major outside Republican expenditure groups have also become a critical factor in elections. Minnesota’s Future, a fund led by operatives Chris Tiedeman and Jeff Larson, ran ads attacking Dayton ahead of the November election in 2010. The fund managed to raise more than $2 million, mostly from prominent national groups like the Republican Governor’s Association. MN Forward also emerged as a pro-business group headed by former Pawlenty chief of staff Brian McClung. The group also raised several million dollars to spend on Republican campaigns in 2010.

Some of that money would have gone to the Republican Party of Minnesota under different circumstances.

“This is all symptomatic of the rise of the independent expenditures groups,” longtime lobbyist John Knapp said. “People don’t have to put their money in the party anymore. I don’t think it looks good [for the Republican Party] going forward … I don’t know if they will be able to raise the money that they need to.”

Back to a ‘grass-roots’ function

Party activists say the RPM will likely continue to refrain from spending on media — and even local legislative races — and get back to the basics of the party: grass-roots candidate support. Mainly, that means creating voter identification lists and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“There are things we can do that won’t cost a huge amount of money that will provide support in the election,” said 6th Congressional District GOP Chairman Joe Westrup, who is a member of the party’s executive committee. “I think that’s mostly what the GOP does — provide grass-roots support for candidates. There’s plenty of PAC and super PAC money that comes in from outside interest groups to support even a simple House candidate.”

Rick Weible, the 3rd Congressional District chairman and a member of the executive board, spoke highly of the GOP’s Phoenix Voter Management System, which a few party techies have been developing since about 2008. While the voter file cost a significant amount of money on the front end to develop (and departed from the typical move to use an RNC-provided voter list), Weible said it was worth the effort.

“One of the things that the party has that is most coveted is our voter vault list,” Weible said. “We are comfortable saying that we know where 70 percent of the conservative votes come from.” The list can be used by any endorsed candidate, statewide or local, he added.

RNC Committeewoman Pat Anderson agrees. “Third-party groups have [played] and will continue to play a role, period. The entities are evolving, and the party is probably going to be focused much more on list development and get-out-the-vote rather than running millions of dollars’ worth of television ads.”

That could also mean spending less money directly on legislative candidates, she said: “The caucuses are in pretty good shape. Yes, they have a lot of seats to defend, but the party hasn’t typically spent a significant amount of money on direct legislative races.”

Through all of the turmoil, Anderson insists that the party will be a force in the upcoming election.

“The party will play a role, but it will likely be [narrower],” she said. “I don’t think you can assume that because one part of the Republican apparatus is in the tough shape that Republicans won’t win elections. There are entities that can step in, other entities that can raise the money. The party will focus on its strengths, and that’s basic grass-roots campaigning.”

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