Fundamental questions about future role, leadership of the party lie ahead
The wounds had started to heal by the time Minnesota Republicans faced each other at an annual activist gathering in Blaine over the weekend. Many Republicans had already come to terms with the drubbing that took place on Nov. 6, when both Republican legislative majorities and two GOP-led constitutional amendments were rejected by voters. For many, the defeat was so dramatic that it left little room for interpretation or analysis.
“Clearly the Republican Party has a message problem,” Republican delegate and former State Auditor Pat Anderson said. “I think this was a reality shock for some people, and for others it wasn’t a surprise. What we all know for sure is that the party has a lot of work to do in rebuilding what was lost.”
The meeting also did little to make clear the path ahead for the Minnesota GOP. The party is still facing about $1.5 million in debt, a number that has slowly ticked down from about $1.9 million since the start of the year. Current party leadership has earned high praise for its work to right the ship since former chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned this time last year, leaving the party on the hook with more than $2 million in debts. But new Chairman Pat Shortridge is on his way out in April, vowing from the start only to serve out the remainder of Sutton’s term. His exit has some delegates worried that the next leader of the Minnesota GOP could hail from a growing faction of libertarians within the party, a group not known for its ties to the wealthy and moderate donor group of Republicans.
The only tangible power the party has heading into a competitive race for U.S. Senate and governor in 2014 is the endorsement process, one that has always carried more weight in the Republican Party than with Minnesota Democrats. But after an embarrassing U.S. Senate loss this year by endorsed libertarian candidate Kurt Bills, several influential members of the party are calling for Republicans to do away with the endorsement process altogether. On top of that, several prominent Republicans are already forming political funds designed to support candidates all the way through a Republican primary election.
“With the party’s debt, they are in a weak position,” said activist Marianne Stebbins. “We are going to see movements running parallel to the party.”
To endorse or not to endorse
Bills’ loss to popular DFL incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar was expected, but most Republicans were surprised at just how poorly he performed. Bills raised hardly any money in his effort and was declared the loser within 10 minutes of the polls closing on election night.
The performance was enough for Ben Golnik, an activist and operative who previously served as executive director of the party, to publicly call for the Republican Party to do away with the endorsement for good. In a Star Tribune op-ed, Golnik called the delegate selection and endorsement process “costly” and “time-consuming.”
“With the complicated process, a well-organized minority can defeat a poorly organized majority,” Golnik wrote. “As Republicans look to run serious challengers to Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken in 2014, strong candidates must be recruited — from both inside the existing structure and from outside. Prospective candidates should skip the endorsement process and run in a primary, rather than focusing solely on the endorsement process.”
Golnik isn’t the only Republican thinking along these lines. Stebbins, who is considered the leader of the libertarian wing of the party, says political funds are already in the works to support candidates directly through the primary election, with no consideration of the endorsement process at all.
“We are hearing rumors of Norm Coleman going straight to a primary for governor,” Stebbins said. “While I think that the party needs to try and uphold its endorsement the best it can, I think you are going to see candidates going straight to the primary.”
Stebbins says Ron Paul supporters plan to create their own primary political fund, or PAC, and she expects to see primary PACs form around the “establishment side” of the party.
That will put Republicans in the position to have a strong primary election for the first time in years. “With Sutton came this idea that the endorsement means everything,” Anderson said. “I think you will see the Republican Party moving toward the Democratic model of strong primaries. The party itself is not going to be the only entity out there, and right now it’s a weak entity.”
But there are those who fear what would happen if the endorsement process goes away. Activist Andy Brehm worries that without the endorsement and promise of support from the party, only wealthy candidates will consider running for office. “The parties are a really important mechanism for the Republican cause, and if we are to abandon the party, we are at a disadvantage,” he said.
Current party treasurer Bron Scherer agrees. “I think people understand the importance of having an effective and strong Republican Party of Minnesota. It’s kind of the glue that holds everything together,” he said. “That’s what we need to do well to work with federal and state candidates coming up in ’14 and ’16.”
GOPers search for their next leader
The hunt for the next leader of the Republican Party is mostly in the recruiting stage, and the possible contenders range from grass-roots activists to sitting legislators.
With the party’s debt in mind, some Republicans are eyeing GOPers with ties to the business community and wealthy donors. That includes former gubernatorial candidate and RNC Committeeman Brian Sullivan, who made his fortune selling water filters, and Starkey Labs sales executive Brandon Sawalich, who dropped a bid for party chairman to replace Sutton following a strange controversy in which he was arrested in an airport for expired tabs.
Once again Republicans are talking about News Corp. executive and party finance director Bill Guidera for the job of party chair, but Guidera has turned down the opportunity to run for the job in the past and could be eyeing the U.S. Senate race in 2014. More establishment members of the party are also hoping Republican war veteran and newcomer Pete Hegseth might run for the job, after losing the endorsement to run against Klobuchar this year.
Several activists are also interested in the position, including Senate District 34 Chairwoman Marjorie Holsten, Minneapolis activist Corey Sax and North Metro Tea Party coordinator Jack Rogers.
Stebbins, who doesn’t plan to run for chair herself, says she’d like to see a new leader who is fair to all members of the party. “We just want to make sure the new chair is someone who won’t steamroll any one part of the party,” she said. Stebbins said former RNC Committeewoman Pat Anderson, a longtime supporter of Ron Paul, could run for the post, but Anderson says she’s “not looking at that presently.” But there are other members of the libertarian faction of the party being recruited to run for the spot, including current state Rep. Pat Garofalo, the only sitting legislator to endorse Paul for president.
As for the prospect of Paul supporters taking over the party apparatus, “There’s $1.5 million in debt, and if they want it, I guess they can just have at it,” said Joe Westrup, a former member of the state GOP executive board who was ousted by an organized group of libertarians. “I say, good luck. Based on the way they’ve donated money in the past, I don’t see things improving.”
Garofalo is not the only legislator allegedly interested in the post; Republican Rep. Keith Downey, who lost a bid for the state Senate this year, is rumored to be interested in the job, and former Rep. Dan Severson is also being recruited to run.