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The Minnesota Republican Party is back. Maybe. Or Not.

The Minnesota GOP lost every statewide office — but won the state House. So where does the party go from there? 

The Republican Party mascot took the stage at the Minnesota Republican Party election night gathering.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

The future of the Republican Party of Minnesota, based on the results of last week’s elections, is either a) sound and poised for future gain, b) in flux, or c) still in doubt.

The correct answer — if there is one — depends on who you believe has the smartest analysis of the election: the current chair of the party; a former chair of the party; or the chairman of the Tom Emmer’s successful bid for congress.

Let’s start with the current chair: Keith Downey, who views Tuesday’s results as evidence that Republicans have regained their political footing. “The turnaround is basically over and the comeback can begin,” he said. “Arguably, it’s already started with the House.”

The Republicans gain of 11 seats in the Minnesota House has put them in the majority, a victory that Downey ascribes to solid political strategy — and a DFL Party that overplayed its hand. “The Democratic message was so Minneapolis-centric, it was deemed for what it was,” he said. “I think there was a significant check on Democrat power and a restoration of balance here in Minnesota and nationally.”

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Downey interprets the DFL victories at the top of the ticket to the power of incumbency.  “Well-funded incumbents prevailed,” he said.  “And Al Franken outspent Mike McFadden five to one, an enormous amount to protect his seat.  When the dust is settled, I think we’ll see that Mark Dayton outspent Jeff Johnson three to one.”

Downey had a tougher time explaining a recurring Republican weakness, though: losses of legislative seats in the suburbs.  All the party’s gains but one came from greater Minnesota. “I think in these individual suburban districts, we will look at the individual races and see why it went the way it did,” he said.

But David FitzSimmons, Emmer’s campaign director and a former legislator, offers a different take. He believes the suburban losses have more to do with bigger forces. “It’s a tale of two results,” he said. “They [Republicans] did well connecting with greater Minnesota voters, but you could make the argument it wasn’t so hot with suburban voters.”

It’s part of larger demographic shift that Minnesota Republicans will have to confront, FitzSimmons said. “We’re catching up to the rest of the country in that Republicans dominate outside of the main urban areas,” he said.  “But the urban areas are the ones that are growing so that’s the challenge on the Republican side.”

Rep. Keith Downey
Rep. Keith Downey

In order to do that, though — to tap into that growth, to spread the conservative message, to become a governing force — Republicans must develop the financial infrastructure to match the Democrats, said former GOP party chair Pat Shortridge. In particular, Republicans must create something akin to Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the progressive “outside group” that funnels millions to DFL candidates. “We have now gone three elections cycles with no counter to Alliance for a Better Minnesota, and this is just unforgivable,” Shortridge said.

The right model, he suggests, is the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, which attacked Dayton earlier in the year but switched its focus to helping electing the House Republicans. “Outside [conservative] groups have got to follow along the lines of the Jobs Coalition – they have to be more political,” he said. 

Such a group may not be a traditional business coalition, Shortridge added, because “Folks in the business community are worried about access. [Alliance for a Better Minnesota] is not worried about access. They are worried about winning.” 

In separate interviews, Shortridge, FitzSimmons, and Downey all offered somewhat similar prescriptions to the success of Minnesota GOP in future elections:

Shortridge: “We want to govern conservatively so we need a better governing vision.”

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FitzSimmons: “The challenge is to make sure their message connects with metro area voters.”

Downey: “The biggest key is to show we represent the interests of Minnesotans.”