Ask Keith Downey what he identified as job one when he took over as chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, and he answers with a single word: “Everything.”
Times were beyond tough for the Republican Party of Minnesota when Downey, 53, was elected chair in April 2013. He took over from Pat Shortridge — whom he credits for getting the GOP “off life support.”
When Shortridge assumed the job in 2011, the party was more than $2 million in debt, owing in large part to bills accrued during the 2010 gubernatorial election recount conducted under previous Chair Tony Sutton. Shortridge stanched the bleeding and brought the debt down to about $1.2 million before leaving.
He could not, however, stop eviction proceedings that forced the party out of its expensive longtime headquarters near the Capitol. And Shortridge could not prevent the GOP from a crushing 2012 electoral defeat that put Democrats in charge of both legislative chambers, to match their existing occupation of the governor’s mansion. At one point, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call put the Minnesota’s GOP on its list of most dysfunctional state parties.
Has that changed? “I think most outside observers would say that we have made a tremendous amount of progress,” Downey says. “But that is for others to judge, not me. We’re working hard.”
Downey brought in a three-point plan to fix what ails his party. For the first six months, he says, it was his job to restore credibility by getting party operations and expenses on a sound footing and moving headquarters to a permanent new home. That job, he says, was actually finished in four months.
For the next seven to 12 months, he says, the plan was to “build excitement.” That phase, too, is over, and Downey thinks he succeeded. “We started a number of activities to create a self-perception of Republicans that we are on the side of the average, everyday Minnesotans,” he says. “We are the part of growth and opportunity.”
So now it’s on to Phase 3: Go for the win. And on that score, rhetorically, at least, Downey is loaded for bear.
“Look at the Democrat legislative agenda under President Obama and Gov. Mark Dayton and, arguably, any of the strong Democrat leaders,” he says. “It is largely kind of the collectivist ideas that have existed for over 100 years. There have been little tweaks to it, but they put [the New Deal] on steroids and just pour more money into it.”
Republicans offer the most relevant and workable new ideas, asserts the former two-term Edina state representative. “I can tell you that the number of bills that set out to substantially improve and redesign the functions of government, to really innovate and position government for the 21st century — those ideas are coming from the Republicans,” he says.
Ken Martin may not agree with those sentiments, but you can count the chair of the state’s Democratic party among Downey’s admirers. When Martin took his job in 2011, the DFL was $725,000 in debt — the biggest financial hole the party had ever been in. He can empathize, therefore, with the problems Downey faced entering the job.
“It takes a special person to walk into that role, knowing all those challenges and how steep the hill is that you have to climb to get back to a competitive position,” Martin says. “I would say that Keith has done that with a lot of zeal and energy and just an unflinching belief that he could turn things around. And I really commend him for that.”
Brilliance in the basics
In tackling “everything,” Downey started with basic operations, everything from improving management of shared information technology services to replacing the email vendor and telephone system. The tools and lists that the party provides to activists and local party units were revamped. Downey calls it a “brilliance in the basics” approach.
It required staff cuts. At one point early in his tenure, in fact, Downey says that he and an unpaid intern, Katie Boyd, composed the state party’s entire political staff. Since then there have been several hires, including Boyd, who now is in charge of customer service and event support.
“If you want to restore yourself back to health, sometimes you’ve got to make the tough decisions,” Downey says. “And it was all with the vision toward recovering and getting better. But that’s true of any kind of turnaround.”
The party is now seeing the fruit of those decisions, he says. The RPM’s debt hovers at just around $1 million, and officials are following a structured plan to pay off the rest.
In February, Downey moved the party headquarters out of St. Paul to the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. It is a multi-ethnic section of the city on the edge of downtown — not typically native Republican habitat.
That choice was both conscious and intentional, Downey says, and not merely a cost-saving move. True, the party pays $7,000 a month less in rent per month for its new digs. But Downey says taking root in an inner city DFL neighborhood, where 26 percent of residents lived below the poverty line as of 2009, also sends a message.
“We are on the side of average, everyday Minnesotans,’” Downey says. “When your office is kitty-corner from the Capitol and you are part of the inside-the-beltway complex over in St. Paul, you don’t hear the voice of those people and understand those circumstances nearly as effectively as when you live in the neighborhood.”
He hears at least a few of those voices directly. At noon on a recent weekday, a dozen or so young people of various ethnicities streamed out of the office, presumably on their way to lunch. Downey says they are GOP call center workers, recruited from the neighborhood.
“That’s not outreach,” he says. “That’s just us being who we are.”
There do seem to be changes afoot with the Republicans, at least optically.
A flat panel screen in the waiting area near the Franklin Avenue headquarters’ entrance cycles through a series of messages, some pragmatic, some conciliatory, others confident. One reads, “It’s time… roads and bridges first.” Another says, “It’s time … One Minnesota.” A third: “Proud conservative.” Each is branded with the Minnesota GOP logo. None mentions the divisive social issues that have long provided red meat for the GOP base.
It is true that the state GOP’s 2014 standing platform document still calls for establishing English as the state’s official language. Nonetheless, at GOP headquarters today you will find Spanish-language fliers on display, espousing party principles to Hispanics. Several copies of the St. Paul-based Latino American Today newspaper lie on a table, right next to the Weekly Standard.
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, who served with Downey in the House, says his friend is doing “a remarkable job” moving the party out of its comfort zone, out of the bubble of lobbyists, consultants and all the rest of the Capitol milieu. In that sense, Woodard adds, the move to Seward “was a stroke of brilliance.”
“I think when he did that, he sent a very strong message that this is not going to be the same party it was when he took it over,” says Woodard. “I think, inherently, a lot of the things we believe in are the same things these families and communities believe in. So that outreach, I think, is critically important.”
Fritz Knaak, the longtime GOP operative, commentator and ex-state senator, has other reasons to be enthusiastic about what Downey has brought to the table.
Knaak points to the recent state party convention, where delegates and candidates treated each other civilly, worked together, and offered up endorsements that, according to Knaak, actually matter. And for that, Downey “gets to take credit,” Knaak says.
“If you had told me three months ago that the Republican endorsement for U.S. senator and governor would actually matter, I think I would have laughed,” Knaak says. “It’s been very interesting to me to see how effective he has been, really behind the lines.”
Ironically, when Downey was brought in as chair, he was still something of a party novice. His four years in the House represent the sum total of his involvement with the Republican Party, he says. Prior to that, he was a management consultant, responsible in part for engineering the turnaround of struggling companies. He had never been a delegate, or served the party in any other capacity, prior to his 2008 election.
Nonetheless, delegates resoundingly backed him for chair, electing him on the first ballot in 2013. Downey thinks he got their support because they saw that his strategy for the party could work.
“As a non-super-political or super-partisan person by upbringing and training, maybe I was the right choice,” Downey says. “Who knows? A lot of people might say that we need more of that in politics in general.”
Knaak suspects that what delegates saw in the plan that Downey offered was a way out of one-party Democratic rule.
“People have seen what it really is like — not what it is like in your imagination, what it really is like — when the Democrats are running everything,” Knaak says. “And that tends to have a real cauterizing effect on whatever wounds people are perceiving that they have. It gives you a lot of focus.”
It took several election cycles and a sex scandal for the Republicans to find themselves in the hole they currently occupy, suggesting that it might take another cycle or two before the GOP regains enough voter confidence to be awarded new legislative majorities.
But then again, maybe not.
“We are actually in pretty good shape,” Knaak says. “Which is another thing. Six or eight months ago if you had asked me what good is the Republican Party for the next election, I’d have rolled my eyes. But right now it is actually helping candidates. And wow! That is night and day compared to a year ago.”
The Downey File
Name: Keith Downey
Job: Chair, Republican Party of Minnesota
Education: Edina East High School, Edina; B.B.A, management information systems, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Family: Married, 29 years, to wife Mary; three children.
Hobbies/interests: “I am an outdoors, fishing type person,” Downey says. “I’m always in a suit and tie for my job, but I’m way more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, and even a pair of cowboy boots.”
Random fact: Downey was a champion of government reform in the Legislature, and his new role as GOP chair gives him some limited latitude to continue that push. But he is reluctant to use his party perch that way. “One of the faults or challenges of state party leaders is this temptation to lead on all dimensions — to lead operationally, to lead organizationally, politically, and on messaging and policy,” he says. “The reality is that our candidates in an election year carry the flag. They are the messengers of our party.”