Minnesota’s political parties appear to be on the brink of a new era that is changing their role substantially and may even diminish their clout.
Several factors — technological, legal and philosophical — are combining to complicate the parties’ traditional duties and operations, and the Republican Party of Minnesota’s current $2 million financial problem offers the most recent reminder of some of the changing dynamics.
Tony Sutton, in his letter stepping down as Republican Party chair, blamed the mounting debts on several factors: the party’s aggressive “independent expenditure” effort for the 2010 campaigns, the business community’s lukewarm support in the governor’s race, the loss of the small-donor refund program and hefty legal costs from the Mark Dayton-Tom Emmer gubernatorial recount.
Sutton’s successor, Pat Shortridge did not respond to interview requests to elaborate on the GOP’s challenges and finances.
Many of the Republicans’ underlying issues, though, plague all of the major political parties.
“The Republicans are just in the forefront of what Democrats and third parties are also facing,” says Tom Horner, who broke from the Republican Party to run as the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010.
Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree that political parties will need to re-invent themselves to stay relevant in election cycles to come.
Political insiders say that the state’s parties are facing several major factors:
• Shifting responsibilities
Where candidates once relied on the party for volunteers and activists, social media and the individual campaigns now do much of the work.
“A lot of the things the party used to do are now being done more effectively by candidates themselves,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former Republican legislator.
“It’s not that the business community doesn’t support the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s that the whole political system has changed.”
Ken Martin, chair of the DFL Party, agrees that those challenges cross party lines. “Parties have been unable to explain their relevance in this new landscape,” he said. “But the fact remains that if you have a vision on how you can advance a cause and a candidate, parties will get support.”
• More options for independent groups to influence state politics and issues
Political parties were once the main repository of donations, but changes in campaign finance laws have lured large contributors to political action committees, as well as super-PACs that can make virtually unlimited their independent expenditures.
“The availability of other vehicles is attractive to large-dollar contributors. To focus the contribution, to direct the contribution is very appealing and will become only more so,” said Horner, a longtime political insider.
Martin describes independent expenditure groups as a “huge force” because they can accept money that parties and candidates cannot, namely donations from corporate treasuries, not just PACs. “But IEs will never replace the boots on the ground, the get-out-the-vote effort, the volunteer infrastructure,” he said.
Both Republican and DFL parties meticulously maintain their voter lists, which are prized as much as donor lists.
Weaver views that work as the fundamental party role. “The party is necessary in terms of doing two basic things: identifying likely voters and getting them out to vote,” he said.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and its PAC have always bypassed the official parties and supported candidates directly.
“It’s less complicated to support candidates,” said Bill Blazar, the Chamber’s senior vice president. “If you support a party, you’re buying into all their stuff.” In fact, the Chamber and Business Partnership diverted millions away from the Republican Party into Minnesota Forward, a PAC that directly supported Emmer, the Republican candidate for governor.
• The rise of social issues in shaping party platforms
Where party platforms once focused on bread-and-butter economic issues, they now address more volatile issues, such as social justice concerns, gay marriage, and global warming. Those issues often have more appeal to single-issue voters, leading some contributors to independent groups or candidates with a more defined purpose.
“There’s no question that part of the reason you see individuals and businesses who traditionally give moving away [from the parties] are the social issues,” said Weaver. “An individual will say, ‘I’ll take my thousand dollars and give it to 10 candidates where it really will make a difference, as opposed to the black hole of either party.'”
The resulting diffuse, unwieldy political platforms can be a handicap, Martin allowed.
“There are certainly people who feel parties are pressured by the extremes, and that leaves them with no place to go” he said.
“That was a challenge for Sutton and others — they ran out the moderates, they banished those who didn’t agree.”
While inside observers like Weaver and Horner don’t see the end of political parties, they envision responsibilities that not only will change but become substantially more focused.
“I, for one, still believe there is still a valuable role to political parties and I would hope that the business community would step up and help the party move toward more innovation,” said Horner, referring to the Republican Party’s position on taxes, health care reform and education.
Weaver, who also served as Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chief of staff, is more sanguine.
“What you’re seeing in both parties is individuals moving away,” he said. “It’s natural, and it’s something the party is going to have to live with.”