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After Tony Sutton, where will Minnesota GOP turn for leadership?

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

The state’s Republican Party may not have become a bigger tent, but it sure got a lot quieter Friday when outspoken Tony Sutton announced he was stepping down as party chair.

In retrospect, it should have been clear that Sutton was being worn down by harping among the very activists he did so much to cultivate.

In recent months, the normally ebullient Sutton was subdued.

Criticism within party was mounting
Presumably most of that criticism surrounded the party’s $500,000 debt and Sutton’s decision earlier in the year to take a salary for a job that he’d once done as a volunteer. (Sutton’s DFL counterpart, Ken Martin, also works for a salary.)

All of that criticism was about to erupt in a Saturday meeting of the Central Committee where the party’s financial status was to be discussed.

Sutton, 44, avoided the firing line by stepping down as chairman. It’s unclear whether he was encouraged by party insiders to come to his decision to resign.

There were signs of bitterness in Sutton’s farewell, understandable given the fact that it came just 13 months after the party’s historic success in state legislative races.

In a long letter to members of the party issued Friday, Sutton made reference to the “Monday quarterbacks who always have the right answers in hindsight.”

The man who has spent most of his adult life as a party activist also had this to say: “We all make sacrifices for the Party — however, I feel I have made more than my fair share.”

Red ink, underlined in irony, led to Sutton’s demise.

Sutton letter details ‘regrets’
For example, in his letter, Sutton referred to several “regrets,” including the impact of the “loss” of the state’s PCR program (political contribution refund) had “a devastating impact on our small dollar fundraising.”

Under that program, small donors received a dollar-for-dollar refund from the state for contributions of no more than $50 per individual.

Although Republicans often complained about the program, the GOP traditionally benefited more than the DFL. The program was “unallotted” by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

But small donors weren’t the only folks who stopped digging deep. For all the cultivating of business, Sutton said in his letter that the party’s bottom line also was hurt by the lack of excitement “the business community” showed for the governor’s race.

On the plus side, he said he’s had record success in attracting major donors to the party at a time when political parties are competing with political action groups of all shapes and philosophies for dollars.

Another regret, he said, was taking part in the recount in the governor’s race between DFLer Mark Dayton and the GOP’s Tom Emmer: “I was approached the morning after the election by the campaign manager and campaign chairman for the Emmer campaign and asked if the Party would take on the recount because they could not. With the advantage of hindsight I should have said no and endured the political heat. However, I thought at the time it was the right thing to do.”

Now the big question, of course, is where the GOP activists will turn for leadership.

Kelly Fenton to be interim party leader
For the moment, Kelly Fenton, who succeeded controversial Michael Brodkorb as the party’s deputy chair by winning election for that position on Saturday, will lead the party in the interim. Under the party’s rules, the Central Committee will elect a new party chair within 30 days.

Kelly Fenton
Photo: Fenton Campaign
Kelly Fenton

Can anyone can lead the party at least a few steps back to the middle? Does anyone want to?

Many old moderates — Dave Durenberger and Arne Carlson being two prime examples — no longer feel welcome in today’s GOP.

Recall that in one of his more colorful outbursts, Sutton blasted Republicans who endorsed Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, instead of embracing the GOP’s Tom Emmer.

“There’s a special place in hell for those quislings,” Sutton said  of those Republicans who opted to work for Horner.

But it wasn’t just old-timers who bristled under the Sutton-Brodkorb version of Republicanism.

There are current GOP legislators who found Sutton, and especially Brodkorb, out of line in their efforts to control every action of every GOP legislator.

If a legislator dared stray from the party line on policy issues, there was a threat that the legislator could be stripped of endorsement by the activists back home.

Not surprisingly, in accepting her new role, Fenton tried to appeal to everybody.

She acknowledged the activists, those purists who once cheered Sutton.

“We have the strength of faith and conviction and dedicated grassroots activists that understand what is at stake in 2012,” she said in a statement Saturday.

But she also made reference to “building coalitions and reaching out to new voters.”

That may be hard to do in a year in which there will be so much passion around the marriage amendment, which will be on the 2012 ballot because of the work of the so-called moral conservatives and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. That amendment would restrict marriage to a man and a woman. It is the sort of policy work that has led many moderates to flee the party.

The party also faces the huge task of finding a credible candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Since summer, Sutton vowed that a major candidate would be ready to step into that race.

Summer and fall are gone, and now Sutton’s gone, too.

There’s still no serious Senate candidate. And for now, no party chair, either.

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

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/05/2011 - 10:28 am.

    I won’t miss him. Now for the devil we don’t know.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/05/2011 - 10:36 am.

    It’s my own sense that the Republican Party structure in this state is in decline, and no longer trusted by it’s most important constituency, the business community. In the last campaign, by far the most effective advocacy was done by independent groups, the Chamber of Commerce in particular. They party itself was largely bypassed. I think that’s part of a broad and an irreversible trend.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/05/2011 - 11:12 am.

    “That amendment would restrict marriage to a man and a woman. It is the sort of policy work that has led many moderates to flee the party.”

    Good grief, if people can’t even accept that premise, perhaps they should call themselves democrats and be done with it.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/05/2011 - 11:44 am.

    Most conservatives I know don’t give money or participate in the party machinery. We give money directly to the candidates and that’s it. In the age of the internet and cable news, the party is an antiquated and inefficient entity.

  5. Submitted by richard owens on 12/05/2011 - 11:55 am.

    Maybe the Republican Party should pay its bills and get its fiscal house in order before preaching austerity to the rest of us.

    It isn’t just Sutton and his half-million spending spree and stiffing our own counties for recount records they never even picked up…

    No, it’s the Republican Party at every level that wastes money, runs up bills (TPAW anyone?) and then pretends they are fiscally responsible. The RNC has suffered embezzlement from lack of oversight, and thrown parties at strip clubs for “outreach”.

    The MN GOP has a number of reps in the Legislature too that filed for bankruptcy (stiffed their creditors), lost homes through foreclosure or couldn’t bring themselves to even pay the landscaper (Emmer).

    Fiscal responsibility means facing one’s obligations. We can’t afford this Party anymore.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/05/2011 - 12:10 pm.

    The last remark by Dennis is exactly why the GOP is in decline. Lack of tolerance by the right wing continues to drive people away from the party. Many young GOPers and moderate Republicans do not agree with the marriage amendment.

    Keep it up, Mr. Tester. You and those like you are assuring that the GOP in Minnesota will return to minority status in 2012. Hopefully after the next election, the non wingnut faction can retake control of the GOP so that we can return to a two party government that knows how to make necessary compromises.

    We are all in this together here in Minnesota. It should not be a question of the one percent vs. the ninety nine.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/05/2011 - 01:43 pm.

    Mr. Gleason, Gallop tells us that there are twice as many self-described conservatives in this country than liberals.

    We already have a liberal party. We don’t need two.

  8. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 12/05/2011 - 01:49 pm.

    I was amused at how frank he was about how Pawlenty’s repeal of the policitical contribution refund program had on his own party. I remember at the time Pawlenty and other Repubs saying that the refund program was a tax-payer subsididy for the DFL and that’s why they wanted to get rid of it. Talk about unintended consequences . . . .

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/05/2011 - 02:02 pm.

    Here’s the rest of that poll, Dennis:


    Moderate: 41%

    Liberal: 21%

    62% of the population do NOT describe themselves as conservative.

  10. Submitted by Sarah Magnuson on 12/05/2011 - 02:18 pm.

    As a Republican county delegate last year I took an instant dislike to Mr. Sutton. My first impression was that he was a bully. I have been disenfranchised with the direction of the Republican party in the state of Minnesota, led and bullied by Tony Sutton. His resignation was long overdue. His undue influence over and arm-twisting of the republican caucus was, in my opinion, repelling. I sincerely hope he can take a step back and enjoy time with his family…hopefully he is more palatable on a personal level.

  11. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/05/2011 - 02:52 pm.

    Clearly the current leadership of the MN Republican Party has learned nothing from their failures in the most recent legislative session, nor did they learn any of the lessons from two terms of failed governing by “Mr. Irrelevant,” Tim Pawlenty.

    After the last legislative session, the jig is up for Republicans here in Minnesota. All the worshipers of wealth who sycophantically believed that our state’s only problem was that our wealthiest citizens were not yet wealthy enough (and the rest of us were doing far TOO well),…

    have seen the curtain lifted and realized that the honorable, important, hard working “job creator” they thought they were worshiping was just an illusion being falsely created from behind the scenes by miserly little men and women who,…

    because they are psychologically incapable of ever feeling satisfied spend their every waking hour and dream every night of ever-more-creative ways to use those strings to pull money directly out of your and my wallets and bank accounts and deposit it directly into their own.

    We all know that, as it’s currently constituted, the current leadership of Republican Party in Minnesota only cares about ONE thing,…

    taking away from the rest of us whatever we still have,…

    so that those who already have more than their contributions to society could ever justify, can have EVEN MORE THAN THAT.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/05/2011 - 04:07 pm.

    Bernice, the rest of the poll doesn’t change the fact that Dennis was correct, twice as many conservatives as liberals.

    Moderates are much more likely to avert their support from people proposing radical spending than those in favor of zero tolerence fiscal prudence. Tim Pawlenty is a good example; he held back tax increases, but didn’t do much to cut spending.

    That, more than anything is what doomed his Presidential bid.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/05/2011 - 04:08 pm.

    BTW, I’d be fascinated to hear how conservatives “pull money directly out of your and my wallets and bank accounts and deposit it directly into their own.”

    Even one example would be swell.

  14. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/05/2011 - 05:00 pm.

    Wow Tom Swift it must be conservative math.

    The last time I added 21+21 I came up with 42 not 36. I guess you put the other 6 on the credit card.

  15. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 12/05/2011 - 05:35 pm.

    I am so happy we have (presumably) gotten rid of another so called conservative with a foul mouth. “Quisling,” in talking about respected Republicans (far more so than Sutton). We don’t need more of this kind of divisiveness.

  16. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/05/2011 - 06:05 pm.

    21% * 2 does not equal 36%. Thus, the number of conservatives is NOT double that of liberals. Math is clearly not your or Mr. Tester’s strong suit.

    By the way, an important thing to remember is that the surveys are done by telephone, with 60% of those being landlines. That is, Gallup polls only represent those who bother to answer the telephone and respond to the survey. No matter how much Gallup tries to assure us its methodology is accurate, it simply cannot represent ALL Americans.

  17. Submitted by Claire Ackerman on 12/05/2011 - 06:45 pm.

    As a DFLer, I’m sorry to see him go. He’s the epitome of what’s wrong with the GOP.

  18. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/05/2011 - 06:45 pm.

    Conservative doesn’t really mean what you think it means fellas. Americans think of themselves as conservative as a whole, which just means averse to change and liking a singular, strong authority figure.

    On a case by case basis, people agree with most of the liberal agenda, but consider themselves conservative. Tax the top 1%? check. Social security? Check. Medicare? Check. Reduce use of fossil fuels? Check. Most Americans just want balance. Don’t confuse conservative with RWNJ’s and VRWC types.

  19. Submitted by Colin Dunn on 12/05/2011 - 06:46 pm.

    Yep, 21 is half of 36.

    Thanks for the laugh.

  20. Submitted by Claire Ackerman on 12/05/2011 - 06:47 pm.

    But after reading Dennis Tester’s comments, I’m confident that the GOP will continue its march toward irrelevance.

  21. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/05/2011 - 09:30 pm.

    LOL, oh Claire.
    (get it?)

  22. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/06/2011 - 07:19 am.

    Sutton is a sad face but unaware of his loud-mouth mediocrity. That state of mind possibly makes him a hallmark for things to come and for the Repub Party?

    Sutton is still young and should have learned by this time that his huff-and-puff politics doesn’t make for success. Success is not grabbing the party in the buttocks and assuming it is the face of Republicanism.

    Sutton whines now; now that his reign is over…little man with a big scream?

    Take a long walk across this nation Sutton, and see if you have the eyes and mind and soul to see.

    Go by foot, by rail, by bus. Think of yourself as a loser for a change in this ‘winner/loser’ country. Look into the real face of this nation you tried to control in your small space; your own small way.

    Tuck your political ass-ets in a rucksack; what’s left. And hey, maybe instead, get an old bike(two-speed will do). Listen to others on the back roads.

    Remain silent for a change and learn what it’s really all about; this wounded society where the haves are few and the have-nots multiply daily.

    Then tell you party or whoever will still listen after you shake down those self-indulgent certainties.

    Then tell your party what it needs to revive itself…or start a third party with a wee bit more equal-opportunity-and-justice-for-all, as we once believed.

  23. Submitted by Tom Rees on 12/06/2011 - 07:58 am.

    #13, Mr. Swift says:
    “BTW, I’d be fascinated to hear how conservatives “pull money directly out of your and my wallets and bank accounts and deposit it directly into their own.”

    Even one example would be swell.”

    Just check out the fellow that is in charge of “Business Management” for the Emmer for Governor Campaign (find here:
    He accepts reimbursement payments for his phone and internet from both the legislative account and his campaign committee funds – which was primarily funded by the state campaign funding program.

  24. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/06/2011 - 10:12 am.

    “which was primarily funded by the state campaign funding program.”

    And the state campaign funding program reaches *right* into your pocket and empties your wallet? Or do you hand it over voluntarilly? Try “don’t do that” and see if it clears things up for you.

    I wish you all joy in your hair splitting. And hopefully stating plainly that there are 15% more self described conservatives in America than liberals doesn’t put a damper on the parsing party.

  25. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 12/06/2011 - 11:40 am.

    Mr. Swift,
    I sure there are more Justin Bieber fans than Bob Dylan fans currently, but that certainly doesn’t mean they are listening to better music.

    Enjoy your majority.

  26. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/06/2011 - 12:26 pm.

    Very insightful analogy, Brian.

    Neither Bieber fans or Bob Dylan fans can prove their man is better; it’s all opinion.

    ….but Beiber is still far wealthier than Dylan will ever be.

    Votes or cash; counting more of either is what it all comes down to in the end.

  27. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/06/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    There may be 15% more self described conservatives, but that does not reflect party affiliation. Nor, as I’ve mentioned, does it likely accurately reflect Americans as a whole. Did you know that more Americans have access to a cell phone than a landline? Did you know that many Americans, even if they have a landline, don’t use a landline? Did you know that over 20% of American households use cell phones only? Yet, this poll was done only by phone with 60% of all answers coming from households reached by landline. I’m willing to bet that those households tend to skew conservative.

  28. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 12/06/2011 - 01:17 pm.

    Two things:

    (1) It’s a shift when a party has to move into governing mode and Sutton’s role was more of an outsider. He was very good at that, but his hammering on his own majorities probably didn’t make him many friends.

    (2) “Citizens United” probably has a more adverse affect on Rs than Dems, as more money will be diverted from party machinery to specific causes/candidates.

  29. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/06/2011 - 02:20 pm.

    “There may be 15% more self described conservatives, but that does not reflect party affiliation..”


  30. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/06/2011 - 05:04 pm.

    um, Bernice wrote the numbers wrong.


    Moderate: 36%

    Liberal: 21%

    Yup. Twice as many.

  31. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 12/12/2011 - 07:55 am.

    Twice as many doesn’t count unless they vote. The last three state wide races were won by liberals, two of them not by much, but it was a sweep anyway. The next one against Klobuchar which starts a new cycle does not even show anyone interested in carrying the conservative banner.

    Yup, double for sure.

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