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

Not surprisingly, there is a range of views on how broad, or narrow, the Republican Party in Minnesota has become.

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 “But those people [the party activists] have all been replaced by much more conservative people.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.