A big tent for Minnesota Republicans — or a pup tent? There’s little agreement on eve of state convention

It won’t take a very big tent to hold the Minnesota Republican Party that opens its state convention Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

MN GOP Convention

Or is that statement just a standard bit of that hated (by Republicans) “liberal media bias” showing?

Not surprisingly, there are a couple of views of how broad, or narrow, the party has become.

The party’s chairman, Tony Sutton, said that Republicans and their candidates merely are trying “to reclaim our brand as fiscal conservatives.”

But isn’t the tent a little small?

Different views for different folks
“The idea of a big tent means different things to different people,” Sutton told MinnPost. “I believe we are a big tent, filled with right-of-center folks. We have social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, people who believe in a strong national defense. There’s a business wing, and we have those people who have a libertarian/populist streak. … But the unifier is the economy. People are anxious about the economy, about their jobs. That makes people more conservative. Business. Jobs. That’s our brand.”

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

But former Rep. Neil Peterson, who was drummed out of his party and office by conservative forces in Bloomington after joining five other House Republicans in overriding Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gasoline tax, has a different view. He says the delegates gathering for this convention are not even close to the party regulars who supported him.

“When I was in office, we still had a fairly big tent in my district,” Peterson said. “But those people [the party activists] have all been replaced by much more conservative people. The party has moved from being a big tent to a pup tent.”

Finally, add the opinion of Mitch Pearlstein, head of the conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment. Pearlstein avoids use of terms such as “far right” and “far left.” He also avoids entangling his organization with the politics of the Republican Party.

Overall, though, he has this to say of the coming convention: “I don’t think it’s any more conservative than the conventions of the last 20 years. This has been a conservative party for a couple of decades. … But the people at this convention are no more far right than the DFL delegates were far left.”

The missing middle?
What of the middle? What of old Republicans, such as former Gov. Arne Carlson, who now regularly blasts 21st century Republicans, and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, who is expected to endorse Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, who up until a few months ago was a Republican, for governor? Would they feel welcome at this convention?

“If they hadn’t said some of the things they’ve said, they’d feel welcomed,” said Sutton, who predicted that former Gov. Al Quie will be greeted with great affection, even though he was one of those dreaded tax-raisers back in his gubernatorial days.

Sutton says over and over again that what unites these Republicans is their deep concern over government spending that far exceeds what it takes in. He admits that concern began during the presidency of George W. Bush.

“The catalyst was dissatisfaction with the Bush years,” said Sutton. “One, you had the bailout and the stimulus, and that’s been followed by the government takeover of health care. People are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

But this is a concerned group of Minnesotans, Sutton said. It’s not a party of angry wing nuts.

“We are pivoting from a party of saying ‘no’ to a party that will be putting forward our own, positive agenda,” Sutton said. “We are positive, upbeat.”

Former Rep. Neil Peterson
Former Rep. Neil Peterson

Go back to Peterson, however, who was denied endorsement after his override vote.

“With any group, being discontented and angry is a great motivator,” Peterson said. “It is a glue that holds them together. You have people saying, ‘We’re being abused!’ That attracts like-minded people. The glue with this group is great dissatisfaction.”

District by district, across the state, the angry people took over positions of party leadership. Woe be the candidate who even hinted that a tax increase might be necessary. Woe be the candidate labeled moderate.

(Personal aside here: I’ve had conversations with a number of Republican pols who likely could be labeled “moderate.” But, invariably, they shun that word. One Republican legislator said, “Please don’t call me a moderate in print.” His fear was that the word would be seen back in the home district, and he suddenly would be dealing with a primary opponent.

(DFLers don’t seem to have that fear of the “moderate” label.)

The evolution of Minnesota conservatism
Pearlstein, who has studied Minnesota conservatism, sees the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision as the end of an era. Before that decision legalizing abortion, he said, it was the DFL, with a heavily Catholic influence, that tended to oppose abortion. At the same time, Republicans, who were led by a group of pretty moderate folks at the time, tended to lean more toward favoring such things as family planning, even abortion.

But when the ruling came down, the Christian right was politically activated and found the Republican Party more accepting. The move to strong so-called moral positions was on in the party, joining a party that typically had been more fiscally moderate to conservative.

Now, it’s the Tea Party crowd, mixed with Ron Paul libertarians, finding the Republican Party more amiable. Certainly, the GOP front-runners for the gubernatorial nomination — Reps. Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert — as social conservatives have been playing to those elements, probably because they are the newest units in the parade.

“Power and control goes to those who show up,” said Peterson. “And the people who show up [at caucuses and party meetings] are the people who are the most passionate.”

The group that will be gathering in Minneapolis, Peterson believes, “would rather go down in flames than win with people who don’t share their passion.”

Mitch Pearlstein
Courtesy of Center of the American Experiment
Mitch Pearlstein

But Pearlstein believes that DFLers have the same problem. The simple reality is that people who take the time to attend all the meetings and sit through the conventions must have passion, or they won’t get involved.

“The most forceful, passionate people,” Pearlstein said, “are the most conservative or the most liberal. Neither of these groups is particularly comfortable to be around for most people in the middle.”

Whether this group of delegates and the candidate they end up endorsing are too extreme for Minnesota won’t be known until November.

Meantime, Sutton, the party chair, is extremely optimistic.

“Are we more conservative than we’ve been?” Sutton asked. “Absolutely. I don’t think in the times we’re in, you can be too conservative on fiscal issues. … We [Republicans] are getting rid of new Coke and going back to classic Coke.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/28/2010 - 10:03 am.

    Ah yes, the Republican party. Still trying to wipe out the “New Deal” and the “Great Society,” even at a time when everyone in the country knows someone they respect who is currently utilizing assistance programs invented by Democrats and administered by the government…

    That need having been created by the economic “miracle” (spelled debacle) begun by their Patron Saint, Ronnie Reagan (whose image, actions, and policies they have so thoroughly whitewashed as to bear no resemblance to the reality).

    Having had 30 years of success at padding their own pockets by driving their fellow citizens toward poverty, they now cry for more and better of the same even after the general public has finally been awakened to the fact that Reagan’s rising tide was really designed to be a tide that went out, taking the deep sea yachts (and a lot of jobs) with it and leaving those with smaller boats mired in the muck that their Republican “saviors” had made of the US economy and government.

    Best of all, our Republican friends think their problem is that they have not been strident enough in forcing the true faith down the throats of the state and nation and so are determined only to accept true believers amongst their members and select as candidates even truer believers in those same policies that have clearly, obviously, visibly, unquestionably failed the vast majority of the population.

    Good luck with that.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/28/2010 - 11:45 am.

    “But this is a concerned group of Minnesotans, Sutton said. It’s not a party of angry wing nuts.”
    Is that really what he said, Doug? Really?

    I don’t think so.

    See, this is where “a thoughtful approach to the news” for “people that care about Minnesota” meets the leftist propaganda mill it really is.

    Doug Grow, nor any other MinnPost staffer for that matter, has any insights into the Republican party to offer, and no credible source from the middle, or far right is likely to discuss anything important with a leftist “reporter” that can barely contain the distain he feels for the subject of his “interview”.

    As long as Minnpost continues to employ a leftist litmus test for employees, cogent analysis of anything outside the echo chamber will remain utterly devoid of anything of interest to the thoughtful reader in search of useful information.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 04/28/2010 - 12:09 pm.

    Sutton’s comment reminds me of the line from the Blues Brothers. “We have both kinds of music; country and western.”

    They have fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives, and business conservatives, and anti-government conservatives, and anti-immigration conservatives, and anti-poor conservatives, and anti-tax conservatives, and racist conservatives…

    Big tent you there there, Sutton.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/28/2010 - 12:57 pm.

    If Emmer, Seifert, Bachmann and all of those Republican office holders who came to touch the hem of Sarah Palin’s skirt represent the Republican ‘big tent’, they must all stand on one side once they’re through the flaps.

  5. Submitted by Dave Thul on 04/28/2010 - 01:38 pm.

    Rep Peterson didn’t have a differing conservative view from the GOP, he went 180 degrees against conservative principles and voted for higher taxes, more government, and an expansion of the great social experiment of mass transit. He voted himself out of the tent, and still claims to not understand what he did that was wrong. And it was the conservatives in his district that decided not to support his re-election, not the GOP.

    If Doug Grow had even a faint understanding of how average conservative felt betrayed by the veto override, he would understand that Rep Peterson is a poor example of ‘big tent’ politics. But it does make a good liberal talking point!

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/28/2010 - 02:28 pm.

    Dave Thul: Do “conservatives” believe that streets, roads and bridges will keep themselves in good repair without the help of government?

    Do they believe that new roads will be built just because some folks not in government would like one to appear in their midst?

    Do they think that harming public transit or shrinking it will make the need for ways other than driving a car (which may be too expensive for many low-income workers) disappear?

    Do they think that a shrunken public transit will still be able to reduce the burden of too many cars, and therefore gridlock, on urban streets and freeways?

    Neil Peterson apparently understands that there IS a role for government and that occasionally government does it not only cheaper but better. For this he was punished by you and other “conservatives” who believe a fiction called the magic of the market will solve all our problems.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/28/2010 - 07:49 pm.

    The electorate will certainly have some clear choices to make come November. Hopefully the winner will have a margin large enough for it to be considered a mandate.

  8. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/30/2010 - 06:50 am.

    I got to say…trying to squeeze this self indulgent ‘elephant’ into a pup tent will take some careful maneuvering…and as the stories here unfold,the political ‘elephanius maximus’has certainly left its rear end exposed.

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