Newly elected Republican Party Chair Michael Steele inherited a national party with significant challenges. After winning a hotly contested battle for chair, Steele has encountered other dust-ups that have party insiders wondering if he is their chair for the long-term. In Minnesota, the GOP is at a turning point as well.
Similar to the national party, the state GOP has had two very tough elections in a row, losing legislative seats and control of the state House, getting crushed in the 2006 Senate election and likely losing Norm Coleman as a senator in 2008. Now the party faces a change in power at a time when it’s at the mercy of decisions in the coming months by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The race to replace outgoing party Chair Ron Carey may not be that competitive on paper, but the whispers from GOPers that are beginning to cause the most stress among Republicans center on this question: What’s Pawlenty going to do? That’s likely what Tony Sutton, the leading candidate for GOP chair, is wondering as well.
The future of Pawlenty’s political career rests on his decision of whether to run for re-election in 2010. If he wins, he’s set for 2012 or 2016 — if he loses, it’s all over.
Race for vice chair
Sutton is a respected businessman, former party executive director and at his core a political operative. In the race for vice chair, you have incumbent Dorothy Fleming, who has strong ties to the social conservatives in the party, facing GOP operative and “exposing” blogger at Minnesota Democrats Exposed Michael Brodkorb.
For Sutton the challenge will be to reshape the party and gain traction on issues that are bigger than Pawlenty. But for voters, it will be all about Pawlenty and what he does.
If Pawlenty chooses not to run, the list of potential Republicans candidates would be long. They include: former Rep. Jim Ramstad, businessman and GOP national committeeman Brian Sullivan (whom Pawlenty beat in the endorsement battle in 2002), state Rep. Laura Brod, Minnesota Business Partnership head Charlie Weaver and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Sutton would have to navigate a potentially divisive endorsement fight or primary.
If Pawlenty does run, the campaign will be a clear-cut referendum on his eight years as governor. And despite a crowded DFL field and a potentially competitive DFL primary, after eight years the question voters will be asking is: Pawlenty or no Pawlenty? That will be a tough environment for GOPers to pick up seats in the House or the Senate.
In 2012, Republicans will face their first election after re-districting (which DFLers could control if they win the governor’s race), likely running against an incumbent president named Obama and a very popular, and likely to be very safe, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
In the Legislature, where Brodkorb is the Senate GOP communications director, picking up seats may also be a challenge. The Senate GOP has struggled for years to gain ground on the DFL. In the House, Minority Leader Marty Seifert faced an internal challenge after the 2008 elections and has hinted that he may not run for re-election in 2010, which could leave a leadership void for fundraising and candidate recruitment.
For Sutton, or whoever the GOP chooses in June, the task will seem daunting and the possibility for division within the party is strong. Sutton is thought of as a conservative, but not as vested in social issues as most of the rank-in-file within the party operation.
Fundraising is something that Sutton will bring to the forefront — his business partner in Baja Sol restaurants is TCF chairman and former GOP Party Chair Bill Cooper. Sutton will likely re-attract donors to the party who left during the Ron Carey years. Sutton will also have to convince social conservatives that he will stay true to their cause. The chair Carey replaced, Ron Ebensteiner, was removed when he strayed on key issues.
And if Brodkorb defeats Fleming, the party will be run by two of the best operatives that the GOP in Minnesota has known in some time. Extremely nimble operatives they will have to be in 2010 because, like the national party, Minnesota’s GOP doesn’t have a lot going for it these days. And the one thing it does — Pawlenty — may not be there in 2010.