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Minnesota's political parties are facing big changes, challenges

Minnesota's political parties appear to be on the brink of a new era that is changing their role substantially and may even diminish their clout.

Several factors — technological, legal and philosophical — are combining to complicate the parties' traditional duties and operations, and the Republican Party of Minnesota's current $2 million financial problem offers the most recent reminder of some of the changing dynamics.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

Tony Sutton, in his letter stepping down as Republican Party chair, blamed the mounting debts on several factors: the party's aggressive "independent expenditure" effort for the 2010 campaigns, the business community's lukewarm support in the governor's race, the loss of the small-donor refund program and hefty legal costs from the Mark Dayton-Tom Emmer gubernatorial recount.


Sutton's successor, Pat Shortridge did not respond to interview requests to elaborate on the GOP's challenges and finances.

Many of the Republicans' underlying issues, though, plague all of the major political parties.

"The Republicans are just in the forefront of what Democrats and third parties are also facing," says Tom Horner, who broke from the Republican Party to run as the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010.

Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree that political parties will need to re-invent themselves to stay relevant in election cycles to come.

Political insiders say that the state's parties are facing several major factors:

Shifting responsibilities
Where candidates once relied on the party for volunteers and activists, social media and the individual campaigns now do much of the work.

 "A lot of the things the party used to do are now being done more effectively by candidates themselves," said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former Republican legislator.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

"It's not that the business community doesn't support the Republican Party," he said. "It's that the whole political system has changed."

Ken Martin, chair of the DFL Party, agrees that those challenges cross party lines. "Parties have been unable to explain their relevance in this new landscape," he said. "But the fact remains that if you have a vision on how you can advance a cause and a candidate, parties will get support."

More options for independent groups to influence state politics and issues
Political parties were once the main repository of donations, but changes in campaign finance laws have lured large contributors to political action committees, as well as super-PACs that can make virtually unlimited their independent expenditures.

"The availability of other vehicles is attractive to large-dollar contributors. To focus the contribution, to direct the contribution is very appealing and will become only more so," said Horner, a longtime political insider.

Martin describes independent expenditure groups as a "huge force" because they can accept money that parties and candidates cannot, namely donations from corporate treasuries, not just PACs. "But IEs will never replace the boots on the ground, the get-out-the-vote effort, the volunteer infrastructure," he said.

Both Republican and DFL parties meticulously maintain their voter lists, which are prized as much as donor lists.

Weaver views that work as the fundamental party role. "The party is necessary in terms of doing two basic things: identifying likely voters and getting them out to vote," he said.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and its PAC have always bypassed the official parties and supported candidates directly.

 "It's less complicated to support candidates," said Bill Blazar, the Chamber's senior vice president. "If you support a party, you're buying into all their stuff." In fact, the Chamber and Business Partnership diverted millions away from the Republican Party into Minnesota Forward, a PAC that directly supported Emmer, the Republican candidate for governor.

The rise of social issues in shaping party platforms
Where party platforms once focused on bread-and-butter economic issues, they now address more volatile issues, such as social justice concerns, gay marriage, and global warming. Those issues often have more appeal to single-issue voters, leading some contributors to independent groups or candidates with a more defined purpose.

Charlie Weaver
Charlie Weaver

"There's no question that part of the reason you see individuals and businesses who traditionally give moving away [from the parties] are the social issues," said Weaver. "An individual will say, 'I'll take my thousand dollars and give it to 10 candidates where it really will make a difference, as opposed to the black hole of either party.'"

The resulting diffuse, unwieldy political platforms can be a handicap, Martin allowed.

"There are certainly people who feel parties are pressured by the extremes, and that leaves them with no place to go" he said.

"That was a challenge for Sutton and others — they ran out the moderates, they banished those who didn't agree."

While inside observers like Weaver and Horner don't see the end of political parties, they envision responsibilities that not only will change but become substantially more focused.

"I, for one, still believe there is still a valuable role to political parties and I would hope that the business community would step up and help the party move toward more innovation," said Horner, referring to the Republican Party's position on taxes, health care reform and education.

Weaver, who also served as Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff, is more sanguine.

"What you're seeing in both parties is individuals moving away," he said. "It's natural, and it's something the party is going to have to live with."

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Comments (9)

This is an interesting piece about the views of the guys at the top of their respective state political parties. Locally in Senate District 42 (Eden Prairie/southern Minnetonka) the members of both parties have been very active and motivated and apparent exception to what your interviews are revealing. I've detected high levels of enthusiasm in DFL Senate Districts 41, 43 and 44 and get emails almost daily of DFL associated forums, discussions and meet-ups. On the DFL side in SD 42, we've been fighting liberal and DFL sanctimoniousness which can deflate anyone's smile; we're adding wit, levity, legitimate neighborliness and fun into the political process beginning with the precinct caucuses and our local conventions. To note, the following video with local DFL air guitar rockers, "The Junk Yard Democrats." The group has made three videos to date. Their premiere video has been featured DFL 42's cable access program Democratic Visions and can be seen with the following link on YouTube. Just copy it and paste into your address bar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NIqtSF97BI

It's been a long time since the state parties have mattered on a local level. In my personal experience, they have tended to more harm than good. Independent expenditures are the real force in state politics now, and with court decisions which eliminate any restrictions on the way they are used, they will overwhelm any campaign where they are applied.

The effect, if not the expressly stated intention, of the Supreme Court's decisions in this area is to say that corruption on a truly massive scale is the cost they have chosen to impose on us as a price for freedom. For myself, that's a choice I would have liked a role in making for myself, rather than having to accept it as a diktat from a collection of elderly and increasingly out of touch lifetime political appointees.

A comprehensive piece with reputable sources written by a quality journalist.

One thing that seemed upside down, however, was the suggestion that Mr. Weaver's last statement was more sanguine than Mr. Horner's. Based on what is written, it should have been the other way around.

The difference between the parties and the super PACs, astroturf groups, etc. is permanency. The parties have been around a long time and will be around a long time or, if one went away, a new one would be formed. The super PACs etc. are formed for often just one campaign, to help or hinder one candidate, and they go away. Their campaigning is about making voters into just consumers buying whichever brand has the better TV ad campaign. Anyone with unlimited funds can buy TV time, but it takes years of patient and ongoing work to build a ground game. The role of parties is going to be the longer-term aspects of politics. They won't be able to go head-to-head with expensive independent TV ad campaigns.

Interesting analysis. It may be why Dayton used much of his own resources in his campaign. It does seem odd that the Republican Party is the party with the debt. Their claim to being the fiscally responsible party falls to the side. The average guy on the street asks "if they can't manage their own budget, why should I think they can manage the state's?"

Brad, you wouldn't know it if you rely on MinnPost as your sole source of information, but the DFL ended the 2010 election $850,000 in debt (that number grew from $800k as more expenditures came to light).

As of today, a full year later, they still owe their vendors $250,000.

Dayton also had the help of his ex-wife and family who created and financed the "Alliance for a Better Minnesota" PAC to run (non) campaign ads for him.

“…As of today, a full year later, they still owe their vendors $250,000…” Since, as of today, the Republican Party still owes nearly 10 times that amount (much of it, admittedly, to lawyers), I think #5 (and MinnPost) can be cut a little slack in not blaring that as a headline – unless, of course, the “Republicans own nearly 10 times as much” part can be part of the same headline.

Frankly, I was as surprised as Mr. Robinson to see the “party of fiscal responsibility” in a hole that deep. It’s also worth noting that Mr. Dayton, a wealthy man, is apparently being criticized by Mr. Swift for using some of the family wealth to finance a PAC and its ads – very much like the top 3 or 4 Republicans currently in the race for the Republican nomination in 2012. What’s good for the elephant ought to be good for the donkey, as well.

Nice try Cyncy. Blame the Minnesota GOP's financial and intellectual collapse on the changing political landscape and you can escape the culpability of horrendous mismanagement and rampant Republican hypocrisy growing from bad policy. You characterize "climate change" as one of those volatile issues, similar to the divisive base energizing social issues Republicans drum up like Gay Marriage. Maybe that is at the root of the Republican collapse? Failure to recognize fact from fiction, social issue from bread and butter issue, good government from bad government. And as the Republican Party embraces a bizare platform that has absolutely no benefit to the middle class they wonder why there relevancy is now being questioned. Tea Party driven at the behest of a few select financiers the future is indeed bleek for the Republican Party. Unfortunately for them the Democrats still strive to be relevant for huge numbers of American Citizens, not just a small slice of the privlaged upper class and uninformed irrational conservatives.

According to a recent Gallup poll, only 29% of people are self-described republicans and only 31% democrats.

The good news is that 40% are self-described conservatives while only 20% are self-described liberals.

Twice as many people will support whom they believe to be the more conservative candidate, so party affiliation has become meaningless.