By the time the New Year arrives, the state’s Republican Party will be headed in a new direction.
Given that the current direction has taken the party and the Senate caucus to the edge of a pretty steep cliff, any new direction would seem preferable.
“At some point, whatever we do is better than where we’re at,” said David FitzSimmons, a member of the party’s executive committee. “I supposed I’d better knock on wood when I say that.”
Fresh faces will be on the scene soon.
Next Tuesday, the Republican Senate caucus will select a new leader to replace the fallen Majority Leader Amy Koch.
On New Year’s Eve Day, the party’s central committee will meet in St. Cloud to pick a new leader to replace Chairman Tony Sutton, who has gone from party hero to party goat in just a few weeks.
But fresh faces alone won’t be enough.
According to members of the its executive committee, the party must re-establish connection with the business community and big-time donors.
When Sutton abruptly stepped down before he could be thrown out, there were published reports that the party was about $1 million in debt. But one member of the executive committee who asked not to be named says that when the final accounting is done, the debt is likely to be substantially higher.
Shortridge apparent front-runner for chairman
There were sighs of relief from most members of the executive committee when Pat Shortridge announced that he would make a bid to become party chair. Given the competition, it’s expected that Shortridge, who has deep roots in the party both nationally and in the state, will win quick approval for the top job.
Shortridge worked for U.S. Rep. Dick Armey of Texas back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Armey was the House majority leader. Later, he was chief of staff for Minnesota Congressman Mark Kennedy and also ran Kennedy’s ill-fated Senate campaign against Amy Klobuchar. Shortridge also had a stint working for Enron — and is said by some to have been the source who informed President Bush that Enron was about to collapse.
“He has a certain amount of gravitas with people in the state,” said FitzSimmons.
Currently, the key player for the GOP is businessman Mike Vekich, who is working as a volunteer at party headquarters in an effort to figure out the party’s financial status. An experienced businessman, Vekich also served as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and was acting director of the Minnesota State Lottery.
“He’s honest, and he’s thorough,” said FitzSimmons. “He can tell us what went wrong.”
According to at least one business leader, who asked not to be named to maintain relationships, the new leadership of the party is less important than the new leadership of the Senate.
What the business community hopes to see is a continuation of conservative fiscal practices that the new majority promised. What it doesn’t want to see is the Legislature dealing with controversial social issues that so many in the GOP base find so important.
Last session, it was intriguing to watch Koch, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean dance as their caucuses passed the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The measure will be on the ballot in November.
How do you feel about the amendment?
“Our focus is the economy,” Koch would say.
But how do you feel about the amendment?
“We believe the people should decide,” Zellers would say.
It’s unclear whether new leaders would work as hard at trying to keep the public focus off social issues. The fate of gambling — presumably racinos — also likely lies in the hands of whoever becomes the new leader.
Majority leader choice fluid
Just who might decide to run for the majority leader spot remains fluid.
For example, first-year legislator David Thompson, who is well-spoken and self confident, said early on that he was entertaining the notion of running for the post. Now, he’s stepping back. Had he won, Thompson likely would have represented the most conservative elements of a conservative caucus.
Geoff Michel, sort of a Tim Pawlenty Republican in that he’s able to slide up and down the political scale from conservative to moderate, once would have seemed a natural for the job. But he’s unnecessarily allowed Koch’s problems to become his problem, too. In a new conference last week, Michel was not truthful in saying when he first learned of the Koch problem. Credibility would seem to be a nice asset to have as the Republicans try to crawl out of the mess they’re in.
There are other names being floated.
David Hann has the respect of a wide swath in and out of the caucus, although the depth of his social conservatism is a concern to some. Dave Senjem would be “the comfortable old shoe” to many. But he’s a big backer of racinos. Will that hurt his chances with the most conservative elements of the caucus?
Ted Lilly, a quiet first-termer, and Julianne Ortman, a hard charger, also have supporters.
Given the way Koch was brought down, anyone who attempts to run for the position had best be in a position to pass a family-values purity test. The last thing the party can stand is another scandal.
No matter who ends up as majority leader — or party chair, for that matter — there’s one area in which Koch will be extremely difficult to replace. By all accounts, she was the single key player in giving the GOP the majority in the Senate in the last election.
To find someone with the knowledge and the energy to take on that job will be very difficult and extremely important. Recall, that although Republicans swept to majority in both chambers of the Legislature, many of the races were decided by razor-thin margins.
Given the status of the GOP at this moment, the Capitol is abuzz with rumors.
For example, there is said to be a deep split within the party surrounding defeated gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.
Sutton and now-deposed Michael Brodkorb lit the fuse on that alleged split by saying it was the Emmer campaign’s insistence on the GOP paying for the recount that created such financial havoc for the party.
Brodkorb lashed out at Emmer following a Dec. 3 party meeting as “probably the one candidate who couldn’t win.”
Some believe it was those attacks on Emmer that led to the fall of Koch and Brodkorb.
FitzSimmons, however, said the “split” doesn’t really exist. He said Brodkorb was simply expressing “personal frustration” that doesn’t reflect the overall unity of the party.
“I would go so far as to say that there’s a renewal going on,” said FitzSimmons, who was Emmer’s campaign manager during the GOP primary in 2010. “I think there’s a lot of people right now saying, ‘I have to step forward and do what I can do to help. I can’t wait for somebody else to get it done.’ “
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.