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Zellers: Trivia question or the next rising GOP star?

State House Republicans elected Rep. Kurt Zellers, a skilled political operative and public relations pro, to be their new leader. He could become the party’s rising star, but he faces some daunting challenges.

If you ask an average Minnesotan who 47 GOP House members elected as their new leader last night, that citizen won’t know. But the recent past suggests that in Republicans circles, the House leadership job is a stepping stone for something bigger.

So it’s curious that when House Republicans elected a new leader, they chose a skilled political operative and public relations pro over a small business owner and ideological conservative.

Going into the closed-door caucus meeting, there was no clear favorite to be the next spokesperson for House Republicans. Rep. Kurt Zellers emerged as the winner after four ballots.  (He needed 60 percent of the votes to win.)

Zellers, in his third full term, represents the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis. He has been an affable and earnest party operative over the years, and has served as spokesman for former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and worked on former Sen. Norm Coleman’s 2002 election. 

And while there was a lack of knock-down-drag-out politics that a caucus in transition seems to need, there were a few strong opinions about the two candidates among their colleagues. After all, Zellers and the other candidate, Rep. Randy Demmer, represent the constant tension within the GOP at all levels. The political dynamics were stark: suburban versus rural, Gen X versus Baby Boomer, political operative versus ideological conservative. 

The election gives the House GOP some new blood. But he very reason that they needed to have an election — the governor’s race — revealed a lack of candidates in a position to step up to be minority leader. For Republicans, 2010 will likely be a challenging year.

Outgoing House GOP leader Rep. Marty Seifert has early momentum in the governor’s race, picking TCF chairman and former GOP party chairman Bill Cooper to be on finance committee.  And Seifert won a governor’s-race straw poll at the last GOP state meeting.

Growing rivalries
But ambition to lead isn’t in short supply among the growing rivalries within the House GOP.  Here is how it’s playing out:

On Monday ambition for the governor’s race eliminated Rep. Tom Emmer, the former deputy minority leader who challenged Seifert, to be the minority leader.  Emmer says he’s thinking about running for governor — another sign of his rivalry with Seifert and a symbol of the division within the caucus that makes the unity of the last legislative session even more impressive. Emmer threw his support to Zellers.

Another likely star would have been Rep. Laura Brod, who was on Emmer’s side in trying to oust Seifert last fall. But there’s been buzz about Brod as a potential gubernatorial candidate since last year.

Add to that journeyman gubernatorial candidate Rep. Paul Kohls, would have been well positioned to be minority leader.

State Rep. Kurt Zellers
State Rep. Kurt Zellers

So there you have the real challenge for Zellers: manage the egos and agenda’s of four members of your caucus who want to be governor. All while understanding that the ultimate GOP nominee for governor — as the head of the Republican ticket — will have more influence on the success or failure of House races than anything Zellers does. 

Zellers is the first suburbanite to lead the caucus in more than 15 years. He will likely try to rebuild some GOP strength in the suburbs, where Republicans ominated in the 1990s but have since lost swaths of seats.

Zellers himself had a competitive race in 2006, winning by just over 300 votes, and his district went for McCain over Obama in 2008 by fewer than 300 votes. His district is one of the few in the west metro that hasn’t been picked up by DFLers in the past four elections. 

So is Zellers just another politician with higher ambitions?  Probably not. He is likely the first significant move of the newly elected GOP leadership led by Tony Sutton and Michael Brodkorb.

Keep in mind, it’s all about winning elections. For GOPers there are three names that have been winning ones since they retook the House and won the governor’s office: Steve Sviggum, Tim Pawlenty and Erik Paulsen.

When Sviggum led the caucus, Pawlenty and Paulsen were majority leaders and the GOP enjoyed its “glory years” from the late-90s until 2006.  Pawlenty’s retiring (for now), Paulsen’s in Congress and Seifert and Sviggum are likely to be a top-tier candidates for governor.

All of this means that if Zellers is successful, he’ll be the next GOP rising star. If not, he’ll be a trivia question.