Two key elections will try to move GOP in new direction

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.

Mike Vekich
Mike Vekich

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.

David Thompson
David Thompson

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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 12/22/2011 - 10:37 am.

    Republican credibility is as thin right now as their balance sheet. Many of us a sick of GOP sermons about austerity and fiscal responsibility coming from a party that has neither.

    Failure to pay bills is not fiscal responsibility. Asking creditors to “wait” a few months to get paid, or shutting down the government leaving hundreds of State contractors with no money for the work they have done is not fiscal prudence.

    Republicans: Whoever you elect as your “leaders”, try to find one who pays their bills and believes the State should also.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/22/2011 - 10:43 am.

    It is interesting the watch the gyrations of a political party that has become so enmeshed and enamored with the desires of the far right end of a “non-party” T Party that they lost sight of the fact these people do not really support the Republican Party. The Republican Party was just the most convenient and accommodating tool available.

    Why really should people who don’t believe in government financially support a party that wants to work in government? And, on the other end, the big money, why should they support the nihilistic fantasies of the far right?

    The fact is that the big money has done very well feeding at both the Republican and Democratic troughs. The current system suits them just fine.

    So, is it any wonder that the party seems lost and money is short?

    It is no coincidence that the 99%ers and T Party have arisen at this time. There is deep discontent throughout this country. That discontent is a threat to both organized political parties and to the big money interests.

    The GOP trying to wrap it’s arms around the T Party may end up being strangled by it.

  3. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/22/2011 - 11:18 am.

    #2 – it certainly appears as if the TP is strangling Boehner right about now

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2011 - 11:49 am.

    And until the OWS crowd has similar influence on the democrats, don’t try to make that laughable connection with the Tea party, ok?

  5. Submitted by Tommy Johnson on 12/22/2011 - 12:16 pm.

    FtizSimmons says the “split” doesn’t exist; it’s a “renewal”??!?

    Next week – the lead up to the GOP Central Committee meeting in St. Cloud – will be interesting.

    If the voting members of the GOP State Executive Committee decide to withhold information about their cooked books scandal, what will newer Tea Party and/or Ron Paul members of the Central Committee do?

    It might be more than a “split” – and far from a “renewal.”

  6. Submitted by Wayne Van Cleve on 12/22/2011 - 12:29 pm.

    Couldn’t the GOP (with a little creative bill passing and state shutdown threats) borrow enough money to balance their checkbook from the school districts?

  7. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/22/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    The republicans have been run around like they are a tea party toy. The party is flailing around looking for themselves in a sea of just say “NO” politicians. To find your party you will have to find the moderates you have driven away with the tea party nonsense. You won’t become a party again until the political pendulum swings away from stupid back toward the middle. If you are unable to fix your problems, the voters will fix it for you next November as they are just now starting to wake up and pay attention. Now badly broken, you have a great opportunity to show the Minnesota electorate what the adults in your party intend to do to once again become a functioning party that is able to operate outside the word “NO”.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    Please pardon me while I enjoy a moment of genuine schadenfreude, watching the agonized writhing of a state political party up to its nostrils in hypocrisy, and trying desperately not to drown in its own effluent.

  9. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 12/27/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    A political party is over $1 million in the hole in an off year…and they don’t even have an accurate accounting of their organizational debts.

    They seemed to have been caught totally by surprise at Sutton’s financial dealings, as if there was no one watching the store.

    But these are the people business leaders want in charge of the finances of state government? Incredible.

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