There’s a debate among Republicans about whether Franken, above, or Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is a more vulnerable Democratic target for the beleaguered state party in 2014.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the Republican Party of Minnesota hit rock bottom.
It’s even more difficult to determine its path to recovery this cycle, if one even exists.
The state party kicked off last year nearly $2 million in debt. In April, it faced eviction for six figures in owed rent on the party’s headquarters. In November, Republicans racked up historic losses: a 35-point defeat in a Senate race, a competitive House seat, control of both legislative chambers and two GOP-backed constitutional amendments. Ouch.
It’s hard to find a state party that’s fallen as far, as quickly, as the Minnesota GOP has. To make matters more severe, there’s a closing window of opportunity for the state party to turn its circumstances around before November 2014.
“2012 was important, but I believe 2014 will determine the direction of Minnesota for a generation,” said state GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge, whose term ends in April. “You’ve got not just the Senate race, but the governors race and three other statewide constitutional offices, the house in Minnesota, as well as several congressional seats.”
Minnesota Republicans have plentiful political opportunities next year, but given their dire situation it means they will also have tough choices. According to interviews with several Minnesota GOP operatives, the party must recruit new leadership, improve its finances and reform the caucus system.
The GOP’s best shot at success, they argue, is to invest in a single, banner, statewide race through which they can rebuild their ailing infrastructure. One statewide victory gives the GOP a foothold in state politics, and it paves the way for the party’s new leader to alleviate the $1.6 million debt.
“The best thing they can do is focus on one issue or race they can afford and affect change,” said Rob Jesmer, former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director and a Minnesota native. “This is not a two-year deal. This is a four-year deal.”
Unfortunately for the GOP, its statewide targets are tough opponents: Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, remains popular in polls and Democratic Sen. Al Franken has proved his resilience in his first-term.
Publicly, GOP officials say Franken and Dayton are both vulnerable. But privately, there’s disagreement: National Republicans point to Dayton as a better target while Minnesota Republicans argue that Franken would be easier to defeat.
Then there’s the task of recruiting a challenger: Several local Republicans expressed interest in challenging Dayton, but no well-known GOP official has proactively expressed interest in Franken’s race. Former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., whom Franken defeated in 2008, ruled out a comeback bid earlier this month.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.