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Minnesota GOP faces leadership question: Should it head to the right, further right, or even further right?

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

Nationally, Republicans are debating whether they should become philosophically broader (Colin Powell) or more ideologically pure (Rush Limbaugh).

The debate in Minnesota is a little different.

As the 350 members of the Republican Party's state central committee prepare to gather to pick a new party chairperson Saturday at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, the choice seems to be: take the party to the right, more to the right or even more to the right.

A three-way race to the right?
"It would appear that we're all trying to see who is the most conservative," said Carrie Ruud, a former state legislator from Breezy Point who is one of three candidates vying to succeed Ron Carey at the top of the party' state structure.


She is competing against party veteran Tony Sutton and newcomer Dave Thompson, who has the strong support of the increasingly influential GOP activists who backed presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Not only are all three conservative, but they all seem to share the belief that it's not the conservative message that's left the party in a shambles. Rather, they say, it's the behavior of the party — especially in Washington — in recent years.

"I have been frustrated by the philosophical and ideology drift our party has experienced in recent years,'' writes Sutton on his website. (Sutton did not return phone calls.) "What was the party of fiscal responsibility doing? Spending money like drunken sailors in Washington," he wrote. 

The three also share the belief that the message just needs a stronger messenger — and the idea that when Minnesotans really, truly understand what it means to be conservative, they'll flock to the Republican Party.

Going in, Sutton, currently the party's secretary-treasurer and a longtime office holder in the party's structure, has been considered the favorite.

Favorite Sutton gets Pawlenty's support
Then, on Tuesday, Sutton received the endorsement of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"Tony is the persuasive change agent who understands that while our conservative party principles form the bedrock of who we are and what we believe, we must do a better job of selling our governing philosophy to Independents and conservative Democrats," Pawlenty said in a statement.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

The governor, who seems to be getting high marks from many in his party for "standing up" to the DFL Legislature, may put Sutton over the top.

On the other hand, the endorsement will fan the flames of supporters of Thompson and Ruud, who, for various reasons, are upset with the party. 

"I tell people if they're happy with the way things are going, he's their man,'' said Ruud of Sutton, noting that in just a matter of a couple of election cycles the party has gone from majority status in the state House to near irrelevance.

Ruud blames the state party for that. She says the infrastructure for the party — ranging from field workers to voter lists to the ability to raise money — is in awful shape, especially compared with the DFL.

Despite her conservatism — Ruud doesn't see any need for mandates on affirmative action — she also believes the party has either not learned, or forgotten how, to appeal to women. She says the dearth of women in positions of power across the party sends a terrible message to them.

Ruud highlights GOP weakness with women, minorities
"I'm not running as a woman, but …'' Ruud then launched into the party's weaknesses in dealing with women and minority groups.

"When the party talks to women, it talks to them about children, education and abortion but not money," she said. "We target mailings to women. Children, education, abortion. We do the same thing with other groups. We fail to talk to them as equals in the tax debates and the business debates. Well, women do care about children and education and abortion. But we have careers, we own businesses, we manage households."

Carrie Ruud
Carrie Ruud

And women vote.  Ruud said women voted at a level 5 percent higher than men in the last election, "and they didn't vote for Republicans."

How will this message go over to the 350-member state committee, the majority of whom are probably conservative men?

"I will tell them that I wouldn't want to be elected because I'm a woman," said Ruud. "But I'm as qualified as Tony Sutton and infinitely more qualified than Dave Thompson."

Ah, Thompson. He is the wild card, the choice of the newest group to breathe new life — or is it new problems — into the state party.

Thompson supporters include libertarians, fiscal conservatives
Thompson has the support of the Ron Paul members of the state committee, a mix of libertarians and old-line fiscal conservatives who were motivated by Paul's run for presidency. The Paul people are incensed over the cold-shoulder treatment they — and their candidate — received from the party a year ago. And they have long memories. 

Unlike the Christian conservatives who grabbed such a prominent place in the party structure in the previous 20 years, this is not a group that puts much stock into such social issues as gay marriage and abortion. Instead, this is a group devoted to what they see as a strict adherence to the U.S. and state constitutions, and they abhor big government and big spending.

And many are big believers in, of all things, "Austrian economics," a phrase repeated in interviews with several Paulites. If you've never heard of Austrian economics, you've got some reading to do before jumping aboard.  (Austrian economics is a centuries-old form of laissez-faire economic theories, which have been set aside by most modern economists.)

Dave Thompson
Dave Thompson

Given the fact that the Paulites make up at most 25 percent of the central committee, Thompson is quick to say his message should appeal to a broad range of Republican conservatives.

"I am a traditional limited-government, constitutional conservative," said Thompson, an attorney who for years was host of a local conservative talk show.

When I, with some hesitation, suggested that Thompson was sort of a local version of Limbaugh, he was pleased. 

"It's a compliment to be even mentioned in the same breath with Limbaugh," he said.

Thompson describes himself as the true outsider in this race. He is that. Many of those who will vote for him are outsiders, too, or at least new activists to the party.

The surprise to some political activists is that the Paulites didn't fade away after the presidential election. Instead, they were motivated to start showing up at those boring district party meetings, taking control of leadership in the 4th, 5th and 6th congressional districts.

It should be noted that taking control of the Republican machinery in the urban, hugely DFL districts — the 4th and 5th — really isn't too difficult because of smaller turnouts. The state party has all but stopped trying to win elections in those regions of the state. Because votes are weighted, based on Republican performance, those districts won't have large delegate counts at Saturday's meeting. The 6th, of course, is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's home district, a place where conservatives are welcome.

Thompson speaks of how the Republican Party should be a "principle-based brand" and that the "brand" should be greater than the individual candidates.

"This is about joining a movement that will change the direction of the party," he said. 

Every legislator should have "a constitutional rationale for voting the way they do" on every bill the Legislature considers, Thompson said.

Party platform vs. statement of principles
A statement of principles would replace the traditional party platform.

Ruud is aghast at such thinking.

"They want every candidate to pass a test on the Constitution," Ruud said. "They want people who line up perfectly with a set of principles. We are a citizen Legislature. How can anyone be perfect. As far as I know, there's only been one perfect person."

"Ronald Reagan?" I asked.

"No,'' she said, laughing.

"What they don't understand is that sometimes you have to vote your district," she continued. "Sometimes your governor asks you to make a vote you have doubts about. But what are you supposed to do? Tell your governor, 'No'? You can tell these are people who never had to push the (voting) button. That they've never been part of caucus discipline. … Most people are not pure enough for them. Certainly, if you have a voting record, you're not pure enough for them."

Though Ruud was a conservative voice in the Legislature, Thompson is critical of her record, especially her vote in support of giving Hennepin County the authority to use a sales tax to build a new baseball park.

"We need leadership who will execute the vision, not just run the operation of the party," Thompson said. "We need leadership that sticks to it in the face of adversity."

Each of the candidates will have about 10 minutes to address the state committee Saturday. Then comes the vote. The winner needs 50 percent, plus one.

If Sutton doesn't win on the first ballot, the committee members may be in Brooklyn Center a while trying to decide on which candidate is really right.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (21)

HMMM... such sincere and principled disputation over who will be the new bridge officer on the Titanc when it has already struck the iceberg, but while those in charge still believe it's unsinkable.

I absolutely love Corey Anderson's Graphic.

This is actually typical behavior for "true believers". The reaction of redoubling belief in the face of massive disconfirmation was illustrated in: "When Prophecy Fails" by Leon Festinger back in the 50's. In short, what happens when people who strongly adhere to a narrow set of beliefs are confronted with mounting evidence that their beliefs are unsubstantiated, those beliefs are magnified rather than abandoned.

The fact that you see this happening in the Republican party demonstrates how purely ideological the party leaders have become. And by ideological I mean irrational. The reference to Austrian Economics illustrates just how irrational these people have gotten. Economists have abandoned that model for very good reasons. On the other hand, the fact that these people have won so many elections illustrates how irrational the electorate has become.

Republicans have been selling the magic plan (cut taxes, deregulate, and privatize, then wait for the magic to happen) for two decades now, and by and large a lot of people have bought into it. The republicans are currently not doing well at the polls- have Minnesotan's finally realized that David Copperfield really didn't make the Statue of Liberty disappear?

Man does this hit the nail on the head.

They keep acting like they won the last election rather than got their butts handed to them on a tray. They have one statewide leader, Gov. Pawlenty, who is stepping down. They have no one who rises to the level of "leader" in either the House or Senate. Two of their congresspeople don't even know the meaning of the word pragmatism and one of them is nuts – absolutely living in another world. The closest thing to a centrist with any name recognition is their newest congressman and he's hoping he does little enough to attract the attention of national liberals who will fund his opponent.

Instead of this party trying to work the conservative mentality in to pragmatic governance, the people who joined the party because they believed the lie of "no new taxes" and "government is the problem" are now the tail that wags the dog.

No matter who is elected, the only thing that will give them a victory in 2010 is if the DFL screws it up – which it has done before, but not lately.

I think there is a typo here:

"We need leadership that sticks to it..."

I think it was supposed to read,

"We need leadership that sticks it to them..."

As I read the Minnesota GOP chairman article and the overview of each candidate I asked myself do any of these candidates have a sense of what is required to govern or what the role of elected officals are. Before making a choice and there does not appear to be any of these who fit the profile of the positive progressive fiscal conservative GOP leaders who have made a postive mark on Minnesota government. The GOP State Central Committee would be wise to ask for a history lesson of who lead the GOP when the GOP elected candidates across the state and what those candidates represented. An ideology that does not track to Mn profile does not build constiuency and votes. The people of Mn are positive progressive and fiscal conservative. With the GOP leader having a moderate who will link with the profile of Mn which is left of the national profile of center right--Mn is really center to center left relative to the nation and that is a great tradition that has and will continue to build our quality of life. The GOP must select a leader with this interest--or perhaps perpetuate the image of a very minority party. I have been on the progressive leadership side for 40+ years and have lead campaigns that have won across Minnesota--it can be again if we want this to be the case.

Dave Broden

Re: "The three also share the belief that the message just needs a stronger messenger — and the idea that when Minnesotans really, truly understand what it means to be conservative, they'll flock to the Republican Party."
The truth is that anyone who truly understands what it means to be a conservative will run away.
The "Austrian economists" were a bunch of screwballs who redefined economics in a way that appeals to the anti-government idiots who continue to believe there are conservative "principles." There are no conservative principles, and intelligent Americans are making the mistake of believing that the current problems in the Republican Party were caused by neocons and that letting the real cons take over will fix everything.

Doug –
You should have read the links to Austrian economics before you gave it such a slighted reference.

First, Austrian economics is not a “theory” in the sense that you use the word. A “theory” is something that is applied. For example, Keynesian economics is a theory of the economics of deficient spending. Marxism is a theory of the economics of capital and labor. Austrian economics is a logical process of thought based on assumptions about individual action in any and all spheres of economic activity.

Austrian economics holds that all economics can be deduced from the principle of human action – the name of Mises definitive work. Human beings are acting individuals who act or produce to obtain satisfaction.
Whereas Keynesian economics and Marxism, for example, require subjective implementation, Austrian economics is the recognition of objective, external, eternal and universal economic principles not dependent on specific conditions of time or place.

You say modern economists dismiss Austrian economics; that is shallow statement on two levels. First, if fails to ask why; the answer is not because modern economists reject the economic principles and assumptions. As others have noted and your dismissal confirms, most commonly, Austrian economics is rejected because it is at odds with common prejudices and people cannot accept that. The irony is that instead of recognizing the scientific character Austrian economics, economists, as you did, reject it by claiming it is “ideological.”

Second, your dismissal stems from not making the distinction between a theory and a set of principles. Gravity is a set of principles. Gravity always operates in the same way. By different actions, man can harness gravity (create an airplane wing with lift, for example) but his actions cannot change the principle of gravity. Likewise, man can alter economic incentives and get different economic results, but he cannot alter the fundamental economic principle of human beings acting and producing to achieve personal satisfaction.

How all this is relevant is that Austrian economists were the only ones predicting the crash of the housing industry, exactly predicting how it would happen, and Austrian economists are the only ones with a viable hindsight explanation of what happened, which (return to irony) is rejected as “ideological” because it places the blame squarely on government policy that created malinvestment, an economic bubble, and inevitable economic collapse.

You owe readers a little more than you gave them on Austrian economics.

Minnesota Republicans: please stay the course and elect the MOST conservative leader you can. Hey, then all you "Colin Powell Republicans" please come on over to the IP. We welcome you!!! www.independenceminnesota.org

This is what they have left: the "talk radio" guys.

I hope they run Bachman for governor and just send the whole thing over a cliff.

Re: Mr. Westfalls comments, including: "Austrian economics holds that all economics can be deduced from the principle of human action – the name of Mises definitive work. Human beings are acting individuals who act or produce to obtain satisfaction. Whereas Keynesian economics and Marxism, for example, require subjective implementation, Austrian economics is the recognition of objective, external, eternal and universal economic principles not dependent on specific conditions of time or place."
If Mr. Westfall understood real economics, he would understand why real economists think so little of the Austrian economists and their followers. All of economics is based on the belief that human action is the cause of what we see in the economy. It is what is behind supply and demand as it is taught in every real economics department in the world. The problem is that if you do not understand real economics, then you are unable to see how von Mises (and his Austrian friends) took what real economists teach and pretended that he (they) made it up. There are only two things that the Austrian economists actually made up. One was to define a free market as a market with no government intervention (a silly and self-serving redefinition of how real economists define a free market). The second was to define inflation as an increase in the money supply (also a self-serving redefinition of the facts). Each redefinition, however, turned true believers into followers who believed (and continue to believe) they are victims of the establishment, because the establishment does not accept the Austrian redefinitions of economic knowledge. This is not trivial stuff, because this Austrian free-market nonsense is also the foundation of much so-called conservative thought.

A couple quibbles with comments (that alliterates --- maybe it could be the name of a blog?).

Paul, you said Republicans have been selling the "magic plan" of tax cuts for two decades. I'll argue three decades, going back to 1978 with Proposition 13 and the Minnesota Massacre, and then Reagan's election two years later. Considering the immediate deficits and financial bubbles in the 80's I argue the problems we have now happened on a smaller scale before but too many of us didn't learn.

Craig, there were a few others who warned about the housing bubble. It wasn't just the Austrian economists, not that I claim to know who they are, but I'm reasonably sure they don't include the liberals who saw the bubble. Though to be sure, the people on CNBC and the business press never saw it coming.

Dennis --

This "supply and demand" thing you talked about that "real economists" teach -- perhaps you could point out a real economist who can explain how stimulating demand can increase supply when the problem is a lack of capital to support production. If you tax production to stimulate demand, how does that solve the capital problem? If you print or borrow money to stimulate demand, how does that not create inflation? And wouldn't it be the increase in money supply that drove up prices, not a shortage of goods for which there was little demand at the pre-stimulus price?

Eric --

A quibble with your quibble: I'm sure there were non-Austrians predicting the burst of the Housing bubble, perhaps even a psychic or two nailed it. What impressed me about the Austrians is that they didn't just predict the bust -- three, four and five years ago when everyone else was riding the wave -- but they predicted precisely the way the bubble would burst. First in the capital intensive mfg areas, then in the financial industry, and finally in retail sales -- all consistent with the malinvestment theory and government policy sending bad market signals.

I'm with the guy who thinks Limbaugh speaks for republicans. If he doesn't make it, I think Sarah Bachman is a a really good choice.
Wouldn't it be a good idea if everyone who runs for office must take a basic citizenship test, somewhat like immigrants do before becoming citizens? So that we know they know there are 3 co-equal branches of government, and a Constitution that in theory protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, insures habeas corpus and the like. And why it isn't really a good idea if the majority rules in ALL cases. Look at California. Some people would like to go back to medieval governance (sort of) and burn anyone deemed a witch at the stake. That would get results!
If they couldn't pass a basic citizenship test, they are unable to run for office.

"There are only two things that the Austrian economists actually made up. One was to define a free market as a market with no government intervention (a silly and self-serving redefinition of how real economists define a free market)."

This point is too vital to go unremarked, because it carries with it the basic yet rarely acknowledged truth that without regulation, a free market cannot be sustained.

Regulations take various forms. Some protect consumers. Some protect broader societal values such as worker safety or the environment. We can argue endlessly the need for such regulations or the best means to achieve such ends.

But another critical set of regulations protects the Free Market itself from distortion, corruption and manipulation by actors within the Market who hold the power to pursue such activities to serve their own narrow interests at the expense of other actors in the market and the market itself.

The evidence of this truth surrounds us and has almost proved our undoing.

One of the most "objective, external, eternal and universal economic principles not dependent on specific conditions of time or place" can be summed up by paraphrasing James Madison:

If men were angels, the free market would need no self-protective regulations.

Since we are not, we do.

Over the last 100-plus years, a foundation of market-protecting regulations evolved to protect the market from external attack and internal corruption. But over the last 30 years critical segments of that foundation were intentionally washed away. That erosion took on an accelerated pace in the last 8 years, allowing and magnifying the destructive financial and business practices that in hindsight seem so irrational and irresponsible.

Would an effectively and efficiently functioning free market have avoided or mitigated the current disaster? We will never know, because at the economic level at which those abuses took place, the free market had long since given way to a free racket that operated with little of the transparency, full disclosure, connection of risk and reward, freedom of entry and exit, or efficient allocation of resources that are essential to the operation of a truly free market.

Now, under the exigency of economic triage, previously unthinkable policies were initiated by a Republican administration and have been carried forward and expanded by a Democratic administration as emergency remedies to stabilize a critically wounded global economy.

Under these conditions, calling for a resumption of the Austrian School of Economics (or its equally discredited American decedent - the Chicago School of Economics) to solve the current economic conflagration, is like calling the arsonists to put out their own fire.

Mr. Westover,
Re: "This "supply and demand" thing you talked about that "real economists" teach -- perhaps you could point out a real economist who can explain how stimulating demand can increase supply when the problem is a lack of capital to support production. If you tax production to stimulate demand, how does that solve the capital problem? If you print or borrow money to stimulate demand, how does that not create inflation? And wouldn't it be the increase in money supply that drove up prices, not a shortage of goods for which there was little demand at the pre-stimulus price?"
None of what you wrote makes sense. You are making up problems that you believe have no solution (to prove you have a right to dismiss real knowledge). One of the reasons the Austrians think they are so smart is they put words in the mouths of those they perceive to be their enemies. Aside from the fact that I am not your enemy, there is a huge difference between printing and borrowing money (one increases the money supply, the other does not), all economists argue that increasing the money supply can cause inflation (that is not an Austrian invention). I could explain it all to you (so could other economists), if you were truly interested in understanding economics--Keynesian, the Chicago school (the monetarists), and the Austrians. It is really pretty simple, but you need an open mind.

The dialogue seems to polarized and focused on the economics of the right vs. left. Minnesota has a lot more to offer that a mimic of the national scene. Lets look at the Minnesota education system vs. the rest of the US over time we have been leaders--we can again. In government process innovation we set the pace with new ideas. We had a very diverse economy that has weakended but can be refocused with attention to biotech in medicine and agriculture. We have a quality of life with the environment, nature, and the arts which leads the nation if not the entire world. The need is to engage the citizens in balanced and active political participation--we need to have an effective media in times of change of media format-Mn Post is a great start. The media format is a central part of effective governance. Citizen participation is another. To bring this together the two political parties need leaders who focus first on "good government" objectives and place the politics of the approach second. If good government results people will vote for the party who does well. Forget ideology and get on with good government--All of you need to read the Federalist papers and the role of republic form of Government--James Madison had it right-- we need to elect and lead through effective political systems.

Lets shift the dialogue to what a political party leader in Minnesota should be capable of doing as he leads. Not only must he/she find, ecourage, grow, and elect strong and representative candidates --this person must be aware of what actions by government in Minnesota are in the best interest of the state as a whole and not a small ideological group.This person must focus first on good government and as this is done the party (regardless of which one) will benefit and the citizens of the state will benefit as well. We have had period where leaders in both parties did this and we saw real postive results. The three GOP candidates at this time do not represent the moderate--center left fiscal conservation and progresive historical postion of the Mn GOP when strong builders of Mn were elected such as Elmer Anderson, Stassen, Levander, Carlson and many similar legislators and congressman. Lets move back to this level of understanding to benefit all of Mn for the future.

Dave Broden

To often we cherry pick what we want to hear. Our entire political system along with our information system, tend to give too much attention to the extremes. While not focusing on the middle majority.

Perhaps the quiet, intense campaign that we have right now for the governors race in 2010, is more about the donor than anything else. The donor being the invisible part of the electorate.

After all, this will be a "six million dollar" or more governor's race. There will be only a few candidates that will be able to gather that kind of financial support.

If I understand correctly, one of Mr. Westover's defenses of Austrianism is that relies on objective principles of economics. The thing sooooo many people forget about economics is that we create our economies, they are not products of nature. The "laws" so frequently referred to part of the design, not natural occurrences. It's not a matter of one theory or another aligning better with some pre-existing laws, it a question of whether or not the economy does what it's designed to do. When arguing about capitalism, it's not which theory best describes capitalism in nature, but rather which one produces the desired economic outcome. We decide which outcomes we prefer, they are not built into the nature of capitalism. If we want capitalism to provide universal health care, we build a universal health care system. If we want capitalism to minimize poverty, we build safety nets, require living wages etc. It's not that the European's are not using a capitalist economy for crying out loud.

The problem with ideologues is they are not interested in solving problems. This is why it's so dangerous to let ideology capture discourse. Ideologues only want to promote ideology, they are impervious to reason because faith tells them if only we remain ideologically pure our problems will more or less solve themselves. Ideological solutions are always abstract and indirect. Have a problem with health care? Don't fix health care, create a free market and it will fix itself. It's the magic plan. Governments inefficient? Don't just make government more efficient, privatize it the problem will solve itself. Faith based economics just don't work. It's like taking your car into a mechanic because your brakes are squealing and being told your problem is that your cars a gas guzzler; if only your drove an electric car you wouldn't have these problems. It makes no sense.

Mr. Westover:
Re: "How all this is relevant is that Austrian economists were the only ones predicting the crash of the housing industry, exactly predicting how it would happen..."
On the off chance that you read this, I am actually interested in which Austrian economists predicted the crash of the housing industry. Could you please tell me who they are? Thank you.