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Filling the GOP dollar gap

The Republican Party of Minnesota can’t do this alone. As the state’s conservatives set about trying to regain the governor’s office and win back control of the House of Representatives, the RPM is still working its way out from under longstanding debt. Despite recent high points, like the party’s report of $719,000 in donations during the month of June, it is still expected to operate at a disadvantage compared to its relatively flush Democratic counterparts.

Last election, a handful of notable conservative political action committees attempted to help fend-off the progressive charge, but to no avail. Most of those outfits still exist, and, to varying degrees, are expected to play a role once again during this year’s elections. But a new crop of conservative fundraising organizations have also appeared over the last 18 months. Some committees have already started spending on behalf of candidates or causes, while others are sorting out their priorities with primary elections and the campaign homestretch fast approaching.

Minnesota Jobs Coalition

Every election seems to bring the same declaration of lessons learned and a promise to do something different, according to Ben Golnik, a veteran campaign operative and the former executive director of RPM. Early in 2013, following bruising election losses across the board for the state GOP, Golnik decided to act, founding the Minnesota Jobs Coalition as an independent expenditure venture.

“We needed to do things differently,” Golnik said.

Golnik brought on a four-member board of directors, including veteran Republican operative Lyall Schwarzkopf and a team of lawyers. Earlier this year, the board added Dennis Nguyen, the investment executive who was the presumptive GOP nominee for secretary of state before dropping from that race. Golnik said Nguyen’s moderate outlook would be an asset to the coalition as conservatives seek to broaden their appeal.

“Our group felt like in 2012, we lost some voters who are fiscal conservatives and sort of… agnostic on some of the other issues,” Golnik said.

The fund has already been heard this election cycle, producing a consistent stream of criticism against Gov. Mark Dayton, much of it centered on MNsure, the state health insurance exchange. In 2013, the coalition sponsored a series of radio ads targeting potentially vulnerable DFL representatives over their support of Dayton’s budget. Golnik said his intention was to keep up those lines of attack, keying especially on the incumbent governor.

“By damaging Dayton and the DFL brand,” he said, “that’s going to help all our tickets down the ballot.”

Liberty Minnesota, MN Tea Party

Though hard to categorize in a phrase, the simplest frame of reference for the “liberty movement” comes from the legacy of its political godfather, former congressman and U.S. presidential candidate Ron Paul. Local organizer Karl Eggers said Paul is a useful touchstone for the group, which favors small government and leans toward the libertarian side on most issues; many supporters supported or volunteered for Paul’s most recent run for the White House in 2012.

“Nobody’s perfect, but [Paul] definitely embodies a lot of what we strive for,” Eggers said.

Eggers said the group plans to take part in a “few races” this fall, and is eying contests at the municipal, legislative and statewide levels. In the gubernatorial contest, he observed that activists had been impressed by Jeff Johnson, the endorsed Republican, but said he had also heard promising statements from Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet.

Eggers was unsure what kind of financial commitment liberty activists would make this fall, but was confident its “boots on the ground” effort could gin up support for its chosen candidates.

Likewise, the Minnesota Tea Party has opened a new bank account but does not plan to spend heavily out of it during this election cycle. Jack Rogers, a GOP activist and the PAC’s chairman, said the group was typically taking in donations by the “three and five dollar” amounts, and planned to spend the money launching new branches across the state. Rogers said seven different Tea Party groups had already formed, or were in the process of doing so, and the “starter kit” of equipment for each would run around $8,000.

Instead of direct financial contributions — “we’re not going to come out of the woods with $20,000 for anybody,” Rogers said — the group will leverage its network of activists to help GOP contenders. Rogers singled out Johnson as having already built a base of support, due to his frequent appearances in front of Tea Party crowds.

“[Johnson] worked hard with the Tea Party, long before it was popular to work with us,” Rogers said.

Minnesota Action Network

Gina Countryman, executive director of the Minnesota Action Network, was quick to point out that the in-state spending group runs independently of the American Action Network, which has become one of the major players in federal campaign activity. This fact is true enough, though the two do share something, or rather someone, in common: Former Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman  serves as chairman of both the national fund an its Minnesota offshoot.

Countryman, a former campaign manager for GOP U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, said the fiscal-minded PAC was still working with other allied factions to decide how best to make an impact, but said there are already “some legislative races of interest.” The effort is run by a “lean” staff of just a few people, according to Countryman, and planned to target its spending on communications and messaging rather than paid staffers.

Social issues

Intra-party division over same-sex marriage has led to contentious primary campaigns in three legislative districts, and at least one new PAC is prepared to take a side.  The Freedom Minnesota PAC registered with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board in late June, and plans to spend on behalf of Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, whose support of gay marriage in 2013 has led to a challenge from social conservative Sheila Kihne.

The PAC’s chairman is Wheelock Whitney, a prominent businessman, philanthropist and Republican insider who became an outspoken critic of the GOP-backed amendment to ban gay marriage in 2012. The new committee also launched with a noted  conservative messaging staffer on board: Brian McClung, former communications director for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was listed as the organization’s treasurer.

In a statement, McClung outlined Loon’s conservative voting record during her three terms in the Legislature, with high ratings from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

Said McClung: “We look forward to sharing information with voters about the choices in House District 48B in the coming weeks.”

If the GOP is still finding its footing on gay marriage, right-leaning candidates can claim a much more unified front on the topic of the Second Amendment. On that topic, the new Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee plans to raise and spend money in an attempt to ensure a pro-gun rights majority in the Legislature next year.

The group’s two main players are veteran activists with the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance: Mark Okern, a certified firearms instructor with experience on political campaigns, and Bryan Strawser, a corporate risk and security expert who formerly worked in crisis management at Target Corp.

Strawser said the inspiration for the fund dates back to the 2013 legislative session, when some legislators, especially Democrats from liberal urban districts, advocated for passage of stricter gun laws. That effort eventually came to naught, but served as a warning sign for activists.

“We thought, ‘if we had a pro-Second Amendment Legislature in place, we wouldn’t be having these hearings in the first place,’” Strawser said.

As of its next campaign finance report, the gun outfit is planning to report about $30,000 raised, and Strawser said the fund plans to disperse its holdings to individual legislative candidates who have taken their survey. As for the governor, Strawser said Dayton’s record on the issue was “mixed,” observing that his strong statements of support for gun ownership were undercut by his veto of the proposed “Stand your ground” law.

“That’s kind of a red mark on his record, and it’s something we will be looking at,” Strawser said.

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