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).
“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.