Republicans exhaled this week when vulnerable Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced her retirement from the otherwise reliable GOP district.
Their relief might not last long. In Minnesota, some Republican strategists fret that the state party's quirky endorsement process could yield a “Bachmann 2.0” candidate — and put the seat in play again.
“The wrong candidate could lose this for Republicans,” said former Rep. Mark Kennedy, the Republican who preceded Bachmann in the 6th District. “And that would be a key concern for whether the endorsing process delivers the right candidate.”
In Minnesota, state parties endorse a candidate via a series of unpredictable caucuses and conventions. When Bachmann won her first term in 2006, she picked up her party’s endorsement by corralling far-right, conservative Christian delegates around her bid through this process.
Today, the weeks-long, costly endorsement process is maligned by many local Republicans. They argue that the convention’s time commitment means a skewed activist pool often endorses a candidate who does not always represent the area’s political leanings.
The endorsements are non-binding, but most candidates in the state adhere to the party’s choice and drop out of the race if they do not garner the needed support. If the non-endorsed candidates do not drop out, they face several more months of an expensive primary with the endorsed candidate through the end of the summer.
No Republican has formally announced a bid for the seat, and the field will be fluid for months leading up to the 2014 conventions. But already, the cast of GOP candidates considering campaigns to succeed Bachmann suggests the party might be headed towards a contentious and unpredictable convention fight.
State Rep. Peggy Scott, a fiery conservative who consultants said has tried to model herself after Bachmann, is interested in the race. Former state Rep. Phil Krinkie, a fiscal hawk who lost the endorsement process to Bachmann in 2006, has also expressed interest in running.
Republican strategists said the state GOP’s strong libertarian faction — many of whom supported former Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential bid last cycle — could push a candidate through the endorsement process. Since last cycle, Paul's backers have played a large role in the party’s activist-driven infrastructure.
Whoever emerges from the Republican field will face hotel magnate Jim Graves next November. The Democrat boasts support from the national party after coming within 1 point of beating Bachmann in 2012.
Even if a strong candidate wins the party’s backing, other Republicans fear the process itself could illuminate a bitter ideological fight within the GOP: fierce libertarians versus socially conservative Republicans in the state.
The internal strife comes at a perilous time for the Republican Party of Minnesota. The endorsed candidate is unlikely to receive financial support from the state GOP, thanks to the party's difficult financial situation.
The state party is $1.7 million in debt. In a particularly embarrassing incident last year, the party faced eviction from its St. Paul headquarters for owing more than $110,000 in rent.
“There is plenty of chaos and dysfunction, both with ideological splits and significant financial problems,” said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at the College of St. Benedict-St. John’s University in Minnesota. “I think the real question will be, we all know it’s a Republican district, but what type of Republican will come out of the endorsement process? Will the GOP get its act together and select a Republican candidate who is electable?”
Over the past few cycles, Republicans have learned that party endorsements still matter.
In 2012, Republicans endorsed and later nominated state Rep. Kurt Bills for Senate. A relatively unknown candidate, Bills had trouble raising money and drew just 30 percent of the vote against Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Bills’ margin of defeat was massive, even taking into account that Klobuchar was always going to be a difficult incumbent to defeat.
Other Republicans say they are not concerned about losing the seat to Democrats, as the district was recently redrawn to be more conservative. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district’s vote in 2012 with 56 percent.
In fact, some Republican operatives in the state say candidates may ignore the party’s endorsement, which takes place in February, and run all the way to the state’s primary in August 2014.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if people go to a primary, because in the past the state party has been better funded and had more resources to defend their endorsement,” GOP consultant Ben Golnik said. “We’ll have competitive primary battle, and from a primary battle we’ll have an electable Republican emerge.”