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Minnesota GOP Faces Rocky Path to Recovery in 2014

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
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.

Republicans fear two of their remaining promising candidates, Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen aren’t interested in running. Publicly, both members say they haven’t ruled out a statewide bid, but neither lawmaker has been actively looking into the race or building a statewide network.

Whoever runs must endure the state party’s caucus convention system. Conservative activists dominate the GOP caucus ranks, backing candidates who are not very palatable to the state’s large bloc of independent voters.

“We rely on the endorsement process, the caucus process to choose nominees,” said Tom Erickson, a GOP operative and former Coleman aide based in Minnesota. “That model is ineffective.”

Candidates can run outside the caucus process in the primary. But that creates a months-long intraparty battle leading up to the August primary. Last year, state lawmakers attempted to pass legislation to move the primary earlier. It failed.

Ironically, Minnesota Democrats, known locally as the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, struggled through their own similar caucus process until 2008.

Republicans excelled at disciplined campaigns, allowing the party to hold the governor’s office for much of the past two decades.

“A decade or more ago, I could have credibly placed the Minnesota GOP as one of the most talented and organized in the country,” Larry Jacobs, a politics professor at the University of Minnesota, said. “Now, the party is in financial shambles. It’s really caught in a political civil war.”

For example, in 2006, Gov. Tim Pawlenty won re-election in the midst of a Democratic wave, propelling him to prominence as a potential national candidate. In the next cycle, Coleman was initially favored for re-election. After all, he faced a celebrity comedian known for his “Saturday Night Live” sketches.

But Franken defeated Coleman by 312 votes following eight months of recounting ballots and lengthy trials. Two years later, Republicans sought a recount in the governor’s race, even though Dayton led his opponent by about 9,000 votes.

While the 2008 Senate recount left Minnesota Republicans bitter, the 2010 gubernatorial recount left them broke. Republicans racked up millions in legal fees and fines. To make matters worse, Democrats held the top office in the state for the first time in almost two decades.

How bad was the GOP free fall? The state’s demographics have barely changed in the past few decades; neither have the congressional districts. If anything, the political demographics should benefit Republicans: Over the past decade, conservatives migrated to the Twin Cities’ exurbs and infiltrated the Iron Range in the state’s northern tier.

“There hasn’t been a huge shift of ideological popular viewpoint in Minnesota,” said former Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., recalling his more than three decades in Congress. A GOP newcomer upset Oberstar in 2010 — the state party’s big win of that cycle — but he was defeated for re-election in November.

Redistricting did little to change the state’s House districts either. Courts did not make wholesale changes to the boundaries when they redrew the lines in the past 30 years.

In 2014, the GOP will have to try to take advantage of these demographics with a new leader. Shortridge took the helm of the party in the short-term after the former chairman, Tony Sutton, left less than half-way through his term.

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