With the contest for a new chairman, the Republican Party of Minnesota is headed for another power struggle between two blocs of activists — the Ron Paul supporters who have taken over much of the party’s grass-roots structure, and traditional conservatives who lost their hold at the state convention last spring.
Two of the key players in this competition are Marianne Stebbins, not a candidate for chair but the chief organizer of Paul supporters, also known as the “liberty” wing, and Keith Downey, a former state representative with a business and legislative résumé, who is a candidate for party chair.
The victor will determine nothing less than whether the Republican Party can return to dominance. Each group believes it has a vision that will lead the party back to financial solvency and organizational effectiveness that, in turn, will lead to the broad voter support that the party lacked in the 2012 election. For Stebbins, that means a radical retrenchment of party ideals.
“We looked at the last election and the party just showed that it was genuinely out of touch,” she said. “They weren’t talking about the economy, they were talking about the constitutional amendments.” For Downey, the party’s principles are not the problem, but he believes they got lost in the translation to voters.
“The basic Republican message of relying on Minnesotans and not bigger government is an appealing one,” he said. “If we can animate the activist base and make people understand we do care, we can excite the public.”
Meetings in February
The selection of party chair is an inside job. In February, Republicans will attend meetings in their Senate district, also called a basic political organizing unit or BPOU. Each BPOU elects delegates to the party’s state central committee. The central committee then selects the party chair.
As an indication of how tough a job the party chairmanship will be, the state central committee has approved a budget that includes a salary for the party chair. Downey has not indicated whether he’d take the salary, which current chair Pat Shortridge has turned down.
Ron Paul supporters promise an effort to take control of the state central committee. Contrary to claims that Ron Paul supporters were interested only in making a statement in the 2012 presidential race, Stebbins says they are a force at the local level.
“These folks are still very active and working together, meeting and discussing organization,” she said. “They will still come out to the BPOUs, maybe more in some areas than others. It’s a self-propelling movement to a large degree.”
The liberty wing hasn’t endorsed a candidate for party chair publicly, but has mentioned support for businessman and activist Corey Sax and former state auditor and national committeewoman Pat Anderson.
Downey to stress the future
The BPOUs give Downey an opportunity for retail politics where he says he will stress his message of moving forward.
“We’ve got all kinds of things you can look at and analyze to death, but what we really need is somebody who can take our party forward to the future,” he said. “In my mind, the essence of that is remembering that we Republicans are here to provide leadership for our state and the betterment of our people.”
Downey and Stebbins also split on how many Republicans can fit under the big tent.
As far as Downey’s concerned, all Republicans, be they social conservatives, Ron Paulites, or traditional conservatives who tend to be social moderates, are necessary to move the party forward.
Stebbins implies litmus test
Stebbins is not so sure about that and implies there will be a litmus test for future candidates to get the liberty wing’s stamp of approval. “We’re not interested in electing any Republican that runs,” she said. “We want to choose a candidate that has principles.”
Neither the Paulites nor the establishment activists can claim any high ground based on the results of the 2012 election. Ron Paul supporters succeeded in winning the Republican endorsement for U.S. Senate for high school teacher Kurt Bills, who went on to lose to Sen. Amy Klobuchar by the widest margin in state history.
As to why, Stebbins explains, “Nobody was going to do well against Klobuchar. He [Bills] got started late and his campaign was run by the establishment Republicans.”
A focus on communication
Meanwhile, the establishment Republican Downey, who was co-chair of the Bills campaign and ran unsuccessfully for the Minnesota Senate, was one of the defeated Republican candidates who returned the Legislature to DFL control. Women and minorities led the anti-Republican tide. Downey insists that “the Republican approach is absolutely the right approach. [But], do we need to communicate that in a way that appeals to all kinds of Minnesotans? Absolutely.”
There is common ground for Stebbins and Downey and the Republican activists they represent. It’s the deep concern about what happened to their party in the last election cycle and the willingness to reevaluate its political purpose. And no one thinks it will be easy. Downey offered an assessment that gets no argument. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said, “if we are going to be the GOP the state of Minnesota needs.”