For the first time in years, Republicans from across Minnesota will gather for a political convention … and the party’s debt figure won’t be the star of the show.
That’s been the case in gathering after gathering since 2011, when Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned, leaving in his rearview mirror more than $2 million in 2010 campaign and recount debts.
Under two new chairmen — former chair Pat Shortridge and current chair Keith Downey — the party has slowly and painstakingly whittled that debt down to its current $1.1 million level. Now, as more than 2,200 GOP activists gather at the political convention in Rochester this weekend, their focus will be on picking their preferred party standard bearer among a rash of candidates who want to take on Democrats Mark Dayton and Al Franken this fall.
“There was a time when I thought about debt service every day and now I don’t even think about it,” said Bron Scherer, treasurer of the Republican Party of Minnesota, one of the troops called in to clean up the Sutton administration’s sloppy bookkeeping.
Some of this weekend’s GOP delegates counter that the debt remains an electoral millstone, but there other are signs things are looking up, party officials insist. Restructured debt now consumes only about 10 to 12 percent of the party’s budget this election year. Small and large donors have started coming back to the party, Downey said; the state GOP raised $2.5 million total in 2013.
(Democrats raised $3.2 million in the same stretch.)
Focusing on old-school methods
The GOP also escaped a lease with escalating rent near the Capitol in St. Paul to new, cheaper headquarters in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. “It sends a message that we put a stake in the ground in a highly concentrated DFL area and we are willing to play ball in all parts of the state,” Scherer said.
The party has hired a new finance chair, Pete Hegseth, whom GOP libertarian factions beat out for U.S. Senate endorsement in 2012, and is often mentioned as a possible candidate in other races.
Downey is also going back to the basic state party functions, before flashy television ads and Internet campaign web banners were a thing. That means giving massive voter identification lists to endorsed candidates and helping with get-out-the-vote efforts. That’s increasingly important in a post-Citizens’ United world, Downey said, where independent third-party groups have started dominating the campaign spending game.
“When people look at the value of the state party and the party organization in this new modern political era — with so much outside spending, with so many images coming from outside candidates and outside groups — there’s increasing recognition that the party is the only realistic place where the grassroots, boots on the ground organizational work can happen,” Downey argues.
A million in the hole is still a lot
The debt is smaller but not gone, however, and rank-and-file activists say its weight can be felt in more than just dollars and cents.
Jennifer DeJournett, a convention delegate and head of the state chapter of VOICES of Conservative Women, said there’s only so much money the party can use to protect any endorsed candidates coming out of this weekend. Gubernatorial candidates like well-financed businessman Scott Honour and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers are already likely to move on to a primary, and Senate candidate Mike McFadden promising to move on to a primary. Honour is already spending money on television ads.
“It’s great [the party is] rebounding and I’m confident they will be back by 2016, but we are 160 some days from 2014,” DeJournett said. “For other organizations, we have a plan for our candidates. There’s no more time for rebounding.”
Delegate Jeff Kolb echoes DeJournett’s sentiment, and notes that many of the candidates have not proven their ability to raise money on their own, and could be depending on the party’s weak finances.
“They are going to have resources to do some of the basic operations that the party is supposed to do, but we are far from the operation it was at its peak,” Kolb said. “Specifically candidates who are abiding by this endorsement who think they are going to get the kind of help candidates used to get from the state party — they are out of their minds. In the past, the party has set out targeted mailers in certain races; I don’t see any evidence that they will be involved in that level.”