Earlier this month, when GOP activists in Carver County gathered to pick their slate of delegates for the state party convention in May, supporters of Congressman Ron Paul’s long-shot presidential bid turned up in droves. And once all the votes were tallied, Paul backers had secured 30 out of 52 delegate slots, said Carver County GOP Chairman Steve Nielsen.
That means they will wield well over half the votes from the area in determining who gets the party’s endorsement in the 2012 U.S. Senate contest. But the strong presence of Paul supporters in the area is also likely to have serious implications for legislative contests, particularly in the suburban metro area. And their growing role could spell trouble for party regulars, for while the Paulites are by no means synonymous with the Tea Party element that has done so much to disrupt party politics as usual, they largely share its anti-establishment, anti-insider impulses.
Kevin Masrud, a Paul supporter from Chaska, is challenging Sen. Julianne Ortman for the GOP endorsement in Senate District 47, which consists entirely of Carver County territory. Masrud argues that the three-term incumbent has lost touch with conservative ideals. In particular he criticizes Ortman for seeking federal stimulus dollars for projects in the area. “I think that’s exactly what we do not need,” Masrud said. “The people of Carver County want somebody who will stand up to Washington, D.C.”
Masrud hopes to take advantage of the fervor of Paul backers when GOP activists convene again in May to make an endorsement for the state Senate seat. “I’m definitely reaching out to them,” he said. “Everybody is an individual. Ron Paul supporters are not a monolithic group. There are people who vote for Ron Paul for lots of different reasons.”
Strong suburban presence
GOP activists across the state — but particularly in the outer suburbs — are reporting similarly impressive showings by Paul supporters at local conventions. Although exact figures are impossible to tabulate, in many districts they are taking upward of a third of the delegate slots. At the February caucuses in Senate District 32, House Speaker Kurt Zellers was even denied a delegate slot in favor of a Paul supporter.
Four years ago Paul was denied entrance to the state GOP convention in Rochester, angering many of his fervent, libertarian-leaning followers. But now they are more familiar with the grass-roots caucus and endorsement process and are successfully working within the GOP system.
“They’re very organized. Everyone has to give them credit for that,” said Jennifer DeJournett, president of VOICES of Conservative Women, noting that 60 percent of the delegates elected at her local GOP gathering were newcomers to the process. “They learned a lot of things from the 2008 convention, and they’ve actively been putting it to use for the last four years.”
Marianne Stebbins, state chairwoman of Paul’s presidential campaign, confirms that relations between Paul’s supporters and the state GOP are much more cordial. “This time I’m working very tightly with the Republican Party,” Stebbins said. “They seem to have been very fair. … There are a few isolated BPOUs that just didn’t play by the rules.”
Earlier this month challengers Terry McCall and Roz Peterson battled to a virtual tie in seeking the GOP endorsement in House District 56B, which includes parts of Burnsville, Lakeville and Savage. Peterson is a member of the Lakeville School Board and president of the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce, a formidable resume for a legislative candidate. But McCall is a strong Paul supporter and benefited from the support of like-minded activists. On the fourth and final ballot, the challengers were separated by a single vote.
Ayrlahn Johnson, GOP chair for the area, estimates that there were four or five Paul supporters from outside the district helping with organizing efforts at the convention. “They weren’t really hiding anything,” Johnson said. “They’re very active.” GOP activists in 56B will gather again in the coming weeks to try to decide whether McCall or Peterson receives the endorsement.
Paul endorsement could bolster Bills’ chances
A handful of GOP legislators are openly backing Paul’s presidential candidacy, despite the fact that he is languishing well behind front-runner Mitt Romney. Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount is the best known, having served as a surrogate for the Texas congressman. But at least three other House members — Jim Abeler of Anoka, Branden Petersen of Andover and Pat Garofalo of Farmington — have also publicly endorsed Paul.
“We’re doing really well,” Garofalo said. “We’re doing really well across the state winning delegate slots.”
Earlier this month Bills announced that he is running for U.S. Senate. He is among three GOP challengers seeking to take on DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The groundswell of Paul supporters emerging in delegate slots for the state convention should bolster his prospects in a nomination race that most armchair handicappers are currently conceding to Iraq War veteran Pete Hegseth. “Watching what’s happening at the conventions and everything, it’s an amazing grass-roots movement,” Bills said. “It’s very, very interesting.”
But Bills, a high school economics teacher, insists that he didn’t consider that factor when he decided to jump into the U.S. Senate race. “I decided to do this just simply because of what I teach and the numbers that I see,” he said. “When I look into the kids’ eyes coming through my macroeconomics course … they really see that there hasn’t been a whole lot of leadership, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, on the issues that they’re worried about as young people.”
There is still some resentment among veteran GOP activists at the incursion of fresh-faced Paul supporters. Some individuals feel they should be entitled to a delegate slot after putting in years of sweat equity on behalf of GOP candidates and causes. But as Masrud points out, that’s not the way the caucus and endorsement process works. “Some people were upset with how organized we were at the county convention,” Masrud said. “It seems like some people think it’s not fair if you’re organized.”