With the looming prospect of the first truly competitive Republican gubernatorial primary in living memory, GOP state chair Keith Downey wants party leaders to get behind the endorsed candidate or resign their posts.
That demand — or request — was made in a mass email that Downey sent out three days in advance of the state convention in Rochester, where delegates endorsed Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson after four rounds of balloting.
Despite his hard-fought victory, Johnson faces three formidable candidates — former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, and private equity executive Scott Honour — in an August 12 primary. In the view of many observers, the outcome of the contest will serve as a referendum on the diminishing value of the party’s endorsement.
“Party leaders (officers, chairs, and executive committee members at all levels) agree by virtue of accepting their position to support only the endorsed candidates,” Downey wrote in a May 28 email to all congressional district officers and BPOU chairs.
Party leaders who don’t back the endorsed candidate “should first resign their position unless that party unit’s constitution or bylaws provide otherwise,” Downey wrote. “After the primary, they can pursue regaining their former position in accordance with the party unit’s process.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Downey said he is not aware of any party leaders who have stepped down as a consequence of his missive. He also rejected criticisms that his letter amounted to an edict from on high. “This isn’t top-down. There’s no witch hunt going on,” he said. “Like any other organization with 15,000 employees, there are times when you have to restate policies and remind people.”
Letter upset some
Nonetheless, the email has rankled some within the GOP ranks.
“I don’t think he can tell us who we can support and who we can’t. We still have freedom of speech,” said Ted Lovdahl, the chairman of the party’s 8th Congressional District (and of the Itasca County Republicans), who pushed back in a strongly worded letter to Downey.
In addition to asserting that Downey and other state party officials lack the authority to make such a demand, he called the effort counterproductive.
“Your letter aspires to deprive the party of the only consistent good that can come from a primary campaign and election — free market correction of frequent errors made by Minnesota’s imperfect endorsement process,” Lovdahl wrote.
Lovdahl warned that the attempt to “enforce party loyalty from the top down ultimately weakens the endorsement process” and could “leave a bitter legacy of division that will last for years.”
In an interview, Lovdahl said he has heard from about 20 other party leaders and other activists since his letter became public.
“I’m getting a lot of calls from BPOU chairs stating that they are very happy with what I’ve done and they’re behind me all the way,” Lovdahl said. “One comment was, ‘Finally, someone with some guts. Thank you so much.’”
Lovdahl, a Seifert supporter, said he felt compelled to voice his objections after Downey criticized Seifert from the podium at the state convention. Seifert, who was unable to close the gap on the front-runner Johnson through three rounds of balloting, drew that rebuke after he released his delegates — a move widely seen as a ploy designed to block Johnson’s endorsement by pushing the delegate count below a quorum.
“That bothered me very much,” said Lovdahl. “If Downey hadn’t gotten up there and given that speech, I’d have supported Jeff Johnson. But that made me bristle.”
For his part, Downey said he still hopes to smooth things over with Lovdahl. “We’re going to sit down and have a conversation with the 8th district folks. It seems there were some misunderstandings,” he said. “I don’t see this is a big deal.”
Downey also pointed out that Lovdahl himself once sought to enforce party discipline in a similar manner — a reference to Lovdahl’s efforts to force the ouster of a former Pine County Republican chairman, Rudy Takala.
That situation is not analogous, according to Lovdahl, who said he took action in that case because he believed Takala was actively working against the interests of the party by badmouthing candidates, officers and elected officials.
Michael Brodkorb, a political blogger and the former deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said Downey may have overplayed his hand by trying to force party leaders into a corner.
“I haven’t heard of any mass resignations, so what that means to me is that Downey’s directive has fallen largely on deaf ears,” said Brodkorb, who published the correspondence between Downey and Lovdahl on his blog, politics.mn.
“I don’t think you’re going to see folks just fall into line,” Brodkorb said. “And there’s going to be frustration if Downey tries to endorse this top-down mentality. There’s going to be revolt.”
Andy Post, Seifert’s campaign manager, said that Downey’s directive is without precedent, probably unenforceable and certain to be flouted. “As far as I know, there is no recourse to force local officials to resign from their positions,” said Post, who served as a state party staffer in 2006.
Post noted that many of Seifert’s volunteers meet Downey’s definition of party leaders but nonetheless remain active with the campaign.
“We’ve got 50 to 70 people on our steering committee statewide, and they are still fully on board,” he said. “Some of those people are chairs or secretaries of local committees, and they plan to continue volunteering for our campaign.”
If Downey’s demand for fealty is unusual, so too is the circumstance that prompted it: a competitive four-way primary with no clear frontrunner. The last remotely similar instance came in 1994, when Arne Carlson, the incumbent governor, lost an endorsement battle to challenger Allen Quist. Carlson won by a landslide in the primary.
Reached by phone, Carlson said no one was asked to resign from party leadership posts for not backing Quist. And when Quist went on to run as a write-in candidate in the general election, he noted, Julie Quist — a longtime Republican activist — wasn’t squeezed out.
That noted, Carlson said he understood Downey’s thinking: “You want the endorsement to stand for something. I think there is some logic to what Keith Downey is saying.”
Downey’s letter was “wasn’t really an edict,” Carlson added, noting that Downey said dissident party leaders “should” resign. “You got the word ‘should.’ There’s no ‘must,’” Carlson said. “It’s 90 percent rigid, not 100 percent.”
In Carlson’s view, the bigger question raised by the Downey letter — and the presence of so many challengers who were willing to buck the convention — is why the party’s endorsement is so weak.
“The answer is, there’s no clout. That’s what produces weaknesses. Right now the Republican Party is broke,” he said. “They don’t have staff expertise because they don’t have much of a staff.” In the past, he noted, primary challengers faced much more potent party machines.
“If you wanted to take on an endorsed candidate, you had to fight. There was a huge risk because endorsement meant something,” he said. “They had the ability to teach you to organize, the ability to raise money and give money. And their lists were wonderful.”