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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.

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.

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.

Shortridge said he will not run for a full term in April, and there’s only one announced candidate to succeed him: recently defeated state Rep. Keith Downey. No matter who his successor is, the secret to his party’s success depends on which races it decides to target this year.

“They don’t need us to do everything,” said Shortridge. “But doing a few things well? I think that’s a recipe for success.”

An earlier version of this report misquoted Pat Shortridge about which state legislative elections are happening in 2014.

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