Nationally, Republicans are debating whether they should become philosophically broader (Colin Powell) or more ideologically pure (Rush Limbaugh).
The debate in Minnesota is a little different.
As the 350 members of the Republican Party’s state central committee prepare to gather to pick a new party chairperson Saturday at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, the choice seems to be: take the party to the right, more to the right or even more to the right.
A three-way race to the right?
“It would appear that we’re all trying to see who is the most conservative,” said Carrie Ruud, a former state legislator from Breezy Point who is one of three candidates vying to succeed Ron Carey at the top of the party’ state structure.
She is competing against party veteran Tony Sutton and newcomer Dave Thompson, who has the strong support of the increasingly influential GOP activists who backed presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Not only are all three conservative, but they all seem to share the belief that it’s not the conservative message that’s left the party in a shambles. Rather, they say, it’s the behavior of the party — especially in Washington — in recent years.
“I have been frustrated by the philosophical and ideology drift our party has experienced in recent years,” writes Sutton on his website. (Sutton did not return phone calls.) “What was the party of fiscal responsibility doing? Spending money like drunken sailors in Washington,” he wrote.
The three also share the belief that the message just needs a stronger messenger — and the idea that when Minnesotans really, truly understand what it means to be conservative, they’ll flock to the Republican Party.
Going in, Sutton, currently the party’s secretary-treasurer and a longtime office holder in the party’s structure, has been considered the favorite.
Favorite Sutton gets Pawlenty’s support
Then, on Tuesday, Sutton received the endorsement of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“Tony is the persuasive change agent who understands that while our conservative party principles form the bedrock of who we are and what we believe, we must do a better job of selling our governing philosophy to Independents and conservative Democrats,” Pawlenty said in a statement.
The governor, who seems to be getting high marks from many in his party for “standing up” to the DFL Legislature, may put Sutton over the top.
On the other hand, the endorsement will fan the flames of supporters of Thompson and Ruud, who, for various reasons, are upset with the party.
“I tell people if they’re happy with the way things are going, he’s their man,” said Ruud of Sutton, noting that in just a matter of a couple of election cycles the party has gone from majority status in the state House to near irrelevance.
Ruud blames the state party for that. She says the infrastructure for the party — ranging from field workers to voter lists to the ability to raise money — is in awful shape, especially compared with the DFL.
Despite her conservatism — Ruud doesn’t see any need for mandates on affirmative action — she also believes the party has either not learned, or forgotten how, to appeal to women. She says the dearth of women in positions of power across the party sends a terrible message to them.
Ruud highlights GOP weakness with women, minorities
“I’m not running as a woman, but …” Ruud then launched into the party’s weaknesses in dealing with women and minority groups.
“When the party talks to women, it talks to them about children, education and abortion but not money,” she said. “We target mailings to women. Children, education, abortion. We do the same thing with other groups. We fail to talk to them as equals in the tax debates and the business debates. Well, women do care about children and education and abortion. But we have careers, we own businesses, we manage households.”
And women vote. Ruud said women voted at a level 5 percent higher than men in the last election, “and they didn’t vote for Republicans.”
How will this message go over to the 350-member state committee, the majority of whom are probably conservative men?
“I will tell them that I wouldn’t want to be elected because I’m a woman,” said Ruud. “But I’m as qualified as Tony Sutton and infinitely more qualified than Dave Thompson.”
Ah, Thompson. He is the wild card, the choice of the newest group to breathe new life — or is it new problems — into the state party.
Thompson supporters include libertarians, fiscal conservatives
Thompson has the support of the Ron Paul members of the state committee, a mix of libertarians and old-line fiscal conservatives who were motivated by Paul’s run for presidency. The Paul people are incensed over the cold-shoulder treatment they — and their candidate — received from the party a year ago. And they have long memories.
Unlike the Christian conservatives who grabbed such a prominent place in the party structure in the previous 20 years, this is not a group that puts much stock into such social issues as gay marriage and abortion. Instead, this is a group devoted to what they see as a strict adherence to the U.S. and state constitutions, and they abhor big government and big spending.
And many are big believers in, of all things, “Austrian economics,” a phrase repeated in interviews with several Paulites. If you’ve never heard of Austrian economics, you’ve got some reading to do before jumping aboard. (Austrian economics is a centuries-old form of laissez-faire economic theories, which have been set aside by most modern economists.)
Given the fact that the Paulites make up at most 25 percent of the central committee, Thompson is quick to say his message should appeal to a broad range of Republican conservatives.
“I am a traditional limited-government, constitutional conservative,” said Thompson, an attorney who for years was host of a local conservative talk show.
When I, with some hesitation, suggested that Thompson was sort of a local version of Limbaugh, he was pleased.
“It’s a compliment to be even mentioned in the same breath with Limbaugh,” he said.
Thompson describes himself as the true outsider in this race. He is that. Many of those who will vote for him are outsiders, too, or at least new activists to the party.
The surprise to some political activists is that the Paulites didn’t fade away after the presidential election. Instead, they were motivated to start showing up at those boring district party meetings, taking control of leadership in the 4th, 5th and 6th congressional districts.
It should be noted that taking control of the Republican machinery in the urban, hugely DFL districts — the 4th and 5th — really isn’t too difficult because of smaller turnouts. The state party has all but stopped trying to win elections in those regions of the state. Because votes are weighted, based on Republican performance, those districts won’t have large delegate counts at Saturday’s meeting. The 6th, of course, is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s home district, a place where conservatives are welcome.
Thompson speaks of how the Republican Party should be a “principle-based brand” and that the “brand” should be greater than the individual candidates.
“This is about joining a movement that will change the direction of the party,” he said.
Every legislator should have “a constitutional rationale for voting the way they do” on every bill the Legislature considers, Thompson said.
Party platform vs. statement of principles
A statement of principles would replace the traditional party platform.
Ruud is aghast at such thinking.
“They want every candidate to pass a test on the Constitution,” Ruud said. “They want people who line up perfectly with a set of principles. We are a citizen Legislature. How can anyone be perfect. As far as I know, there’s only been one perfect person.”
“Ronald Reagan?” I asked.
“No,” she said, laughing.
“What they don’t understand is that sometimes you have to vote your district,” she continued. “Sometimes your governor asks you to make a vote you have doubts about. But what are you supposed to do? Tell your governor, ‘No’? You can tell these are people who never had to push the (voting) button. That they’ve never been part of caucus discipline. … Most people are not pure enough for them. Certainly, if you have a voting record, you’re not pure enough for them.”
Though Ruud was a conservative voice in the Legislature, Thompson is critical of her record, especially her vote in support of giving Hennepin County the authority to use a sales tax to build a new baseball park.
“We need leadership who will execute the vision, not just run the operation of the party,” Thompson said. “We need leadership that sticks to it in the face of adversity.”
Each of the candidates will have about 10 minutes to address the state committee Saturday. Then comes the vote. The winner needs 50 percent, plus one.
If Sutton doesn’t win on the first ballot, the committee members may be in Brooklyn Center a while trying to decide on which candidate is really right.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.