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For next Minnesota GOP chair, one goal looms: electing a Republican to statewide office

Rick Rice
Republican Party finance chair Rick Rice

The chairmanship of the Republican Party of Minnesota is a job that could be described kindly as a headache.

Yet it's sought-after enough that the party’s finance chairman, Rick Rice, called me back just hours after he had dental surgery to explain why he’s a candidate to replace current Chair Keith Downey, who is stepping down.

“We are at too critical a stage to go backwards,” Rice said. “Keith many made too many improvements to let them slide. I’m determined to improve on this and go to the next level.”

Rice is one of two confirmed candidates for the position. The other is Deputy Chair Chris Fields. Former state senator David Hann is also considering whether to apply. And between now and late April — when the party’s state central committee meets to make the decision — a few more names may emerge.

Meanwhile, Rice and Fields are working the 331 members of the committee, explaining their leadership plans.

“I have a vision,” Fields said. “I believe it’s the mission of the party to define what it means to be Republican what it means when you vote for a Republican.” But the job doesn’t stop there, he said. “We must define the opposition [the DFL] and then create the conditions for our candidates to win.” 

It’s arguable that today’s political backdrop has made the position of party chair more attractive than when Downey took over four years ago when the party was nearly $2 million dollars in debt.

In the November election, Minnesota Republicans nearly pulled off a trifecta. Besides winning control of the Minnesota House and Senate, Republicans nearly delivered the state for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton — in a state where Clinton was expected to dominate (and that hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972). 

Republican party deputy chair Chris Fields
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Republican Party deputy chair Chris Fields

“With Donald Trump, we’ve got a great opportunity to grow the party with both the activists and the voters,” Rice said. “Folks that don’t consider themselves Republican decided to take a flier.” 

But despite the 2016 election successes, the new party chair has to face up to an unpleasant fact: No Republican has won a statewide office since 2006.

“The wheels came off in 2010,” Rice said, referring to the revelations that former chair Tony Sutton had illegally created a GOP finance arm, which led to lawsuits, an eviction notice, and the $2 million debt problem. “It hurt our brand tremendously. We are the fiscally responsible party and we couldn’t manage our own affairs.”

“The party falls short in winning statewide races [not because] we haven’t raised enough money, [not because] we haven’t sent enough mail,” said Fields. “We have not been able to create the conditions for a statewide candidate to be successful.”

The last statewide election a Republican won was in 2006, with Tim Pawlenty’s re-election as governor. It’s been even longer since a Republican was elected secretary of state, auditor or attorney general.

Regaining any of those offices and defending the GOP majority in the House will dominate the job of party chair. What they have to prove to the party’s most committed activists is that they know how to do it.

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Comments (5)

One Big Problem

In order to elect a statewide candidate in Minnesota, you need one of two things: Appeal to urban and suburban voters as well as rural voters; or a strong third-party candidate who can split the the vote. Tim Pawlenty never won an electoral majority. The last Republican to win a majority statewide was Norm Coleman, who had some urban appeal from his tenure as St. Paul mayor (even that election, with the special circumstance of Senator Wellstone's death, was very close). If the Republicans want to position themselves as the party of rural Minnesota, they need to reconcile themselves to winning legislative majorities in some cycles, but not winning statewide.

Coleman didn't win a majority

49.5% is close, but not quite. The actual answer is Arne Carlson -- 23 years ago in 1994.

Correct

Arne Carlson also had appeal in the urban, as well as rural, areas. He represented Minneapolis in the Legislature before Serving as State Auditor.

Of course, today he is vilified as a RINO.

He'd also be a DFLer

If he ran today

As has been demonstrated

…repeatedly, at the federal level, fiscal responsibility is a sometime thing that appears mostly when it serves the interests of one of the national political parties. At the state level, balanced budgets are more or less required, and big deficits cost the party perceived as being responsible lots of elected positions. The fact that the DFL, despite its demonstrable weakened appeal in the recent election, must not be too irresponsible fiscally, or the GOP would dominate state politics and offices. It does not, at least, not yet, so Mr. Rice's assertion that the GOP is the "fiscally responsible party" doesn't hold up very well to scrutiny of not only its own internal operations, but GOP behavior in the legislature and executive branches over the past decade. I arrived in Minnesota at the end of the Pawlenty era, but fiscal responsibility didn't seem to be very high on his list of priorities, given the state debt he left behind when he went off to Washington to be a lobbyist. With the national and state economies in the tank at the time, largely due to Bush tax cuts and the real estate bubble collapse, Pawlenty probably can't be accurately blamed for the entirety of the state's fiscal mess when he left office, but he's entitled to a major share, it seems to me.

Mr. Fields says as much by way of omission as he does by inclusion. Not being able to create the "conditions" for statewide success strikes me as dissembling. While there are several factions within the party that suggest its long-term viability ought to be in doubt, there's little doubt that, among the attitudes brought to light by November, 2016, was a latent streak of blatant racism and misogyny, almost entirely on the Republican side. Mr. Fields notwithstanding, if the party wants to win statewide office, it can't continue to support people like Jason Lewis and several others, who have made their racism and hostility to women about as plain as it's possible to make them.

Not having been here at the time, I can't speak with any real authority, but it does seem, based on what I've observed in the 7+ years since I arrived, that RB Holbrook and Ian Anderson are pretty much on-target in their conclusions about Arne Carlson. A former Republican myself, who would also now be considered a RINO by the party faithful, the GOP has moved dramatically to the right (and backward in time) in the past generation, and I'm inclined to think that that has more to do with its electoral troubles on a statewide basis than any perceived fiscal responsibility. The latter is a quality not limited to the GOP.