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Are the ‘New Republicans,’ the Capitol’s newest caucus, any different from the old Republicans?

The new caucus was born less out of ideology than from unhappiness with the leadership of the House GOP caucus.

The New Republican caucus, from foreground left: State Reps. Cal Bahr, Tim Miller, Steve Drazkowski and Jeremy Munson.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Last week, while unveiling legislation to require drivers in Minnesota to use hands-free devices for cell phone calls, Rep. Frank Hornstein touted the measure’s bipartisan support:

“We have Legislators from all four major caucuses,” the DFLer from Minneapolis said.

Until a month ago, Hornstein would not have needed the qualifier “major.” At least since 1951 (and probably long before that), the Minnesota Legislature has only had four caucuses, the semi-official groupings of DFL and GOP members in the House and Senate (or back when the Legislature was non-partisan, “liberal” and “conservative” members).

That order was altered in December, though, when four House members who had just been re-elected as Republicans decided they would form their own group rather than rejoin the House Republican Caucus under now-Minority Leader Kurt Daudt.

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So now the Minnesota Legislature now has five, not four, party caucuses.

The self-defined “New Republicans” are Reps. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa, who is in his 7th term; Cal Bahr, of East Bethel, in his second term; Tim Miller of Prinsburg, in his third term; and Jeremy Munson, of Lake Crystal, who won a full term in November after winning a special election earlier in 2018 to replace Tony Cornish, who resigned from the seat.

All four represent heavily Republican House districts in Greater Minnesota, and all won at least 60 percent of the vote in the 2018 general election.

The New Republican caucus was born less out of ideology than from unhappiness with the leadership of the House GOP caucus. And for now, its effect on the legislative process is minimal. In November, DFLers won more than enough votes to make Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park speaker of the House and to control floor action and committees in that body.

Daudt, recently elected minority leader by the plain old Republican caucus, will lose most party line votes — with or without the four former members. All of which means the New GOPers haven’t so much changed parties as they’ve changed the room they gather in when the House breaks for caucuses.

“We broke new ground, so we’re finding our way through this,” Drazkowski said. “We certainly had some difference of opinion with where the other caucus was going. We want to provide a voice for our constituents that truly represents what they would want us to say, the things we told our constituents on the campaign trail we want to be able to clearly articulate those here at the Capitol.”

DFL: happy to accommodate two GOP caucuses

While there have been a few instances in House history where individuals have broken away to become independent, this is the first time a group formally created a new caucus, at least since 1951, according to the Legislative Reference Library. As a result, the four were given some of the accoutrements of caucus status: a small staff, offices together on the third floor of the State Office Building (between the floor’s Republican and Democratic offices), and seats together on the House floor — the very back of the House floor.

For now, the quarters of the one permanent staffer — Andy Gildea, who last worked for Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek — is a table and chair in a hallway. Two other staff members have been hired for the session only. There may be more full-time staff added later.

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Caucuses aren’t recognized in the state constitution and there are only a few references to them in state law. One of those mentions has to do with lawmakers’ salaries — and the extra pay due the three top leaders of caucuses. Yet Drazkowski, as leader of the new caucus, won’t get the 40 percent higher pay because the law makes the extra pay only available only to caucus leaders with the most members and the caucus with the second-most members. There is no cash prize for third place.

Still, Hortman has given the new caucus much of what it asked for. “The speaker has been very accommodating and understanding that all members need to be equally equipped to get their message out,” Drazkowski said. But then, having the GOP divided into two groups isn’t exactly detrimental to DFL interests.

What’s the point?

Word of the new group first came in December, when Miller wrote his colleagues to report that the “attitudes and actions” of the Republican leader and his supporters “have become too hostile toward me and has made it impossible to properly serve my District first and the State of Minnesota second.”

Drazkowski later told MPR that the move was a reaction to infighting and the working relationship with leadership. And though he said he thinks the two Republican caucuses might be rejoined in the future, he also said he thinks the breakaway caucus could add members. (Both Miller and Munson ran unsuccessfully for leadership positions in Daudt’s GOP caucus prior to the formation of the New Republicans.)

“Our relations with the old Republican caucus have been very good,” Miller said last week. “This is not an intent to go contrary to any of them. This is an intent to be able to serve our districts as best we can and included in that is having strong relationships with our fellow Republicans.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski: "We want to provide a voice for our constituents that truly represents what they would want us to say, the things we told our constituents on the campaign trail we want to be able to clearly articulate those here at the Capitol."
“A lot of people think this is a pretty radical step, and it is,” Miller continued. “We are not here here to declare that we are contrarians to the old Republican House caucus. Are there unequal voices within the caucus? Sure. Do I think that that is some of the challenges we faced there? Absolutely. Have I experienced certain things? I have. But I’ve also communicated those things with those people. I don’t think we took our marbles and left. “

The first taste of the New Republicans’ approach came during a press conference at which all four members of the caucus responded to House DFLers’ first 10 bills. Drazkowski called the DFLers’ plan a “radical agenda,” and established that his caucus would stake out a conservative position on most issues. “The DFL wants to tax too much, spend too much and its members want to steal 2nd Amendment rights,” he said.

“Instead of making government bigger and people smaller, we want government to be smaller and allow people and their families to be bigger again,” Drazkowski said.

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He also said they opposed the two primary pieces of the DFL’s gun safety agenda: broader background checks on gun buyers and red flag protection orders to remove guns from people considered dangerous.

“Minnesotans understand that they are here to take your freedoms, to take your money, to take your guns and to take your children,” Miller said. “A lot of the things they’re saying, the people of Minnesota want. They do want safety in Minnesota, they do want what’s best for their children. But they don’t want people telling them how to do and government coming in and intruding on their lives.”

When Miller was asked to clarify his claim that the DFL was out to “take your children,” he said: “When they talk about early education, some of their terminology sounded real well. But in rural Minnesota, we have a fundamental problem with child care and government is causing that problem with child care. So for the government to come in and say there’s a problem and we’re gonna fix it … and we’re gonna basically institutionalize your children out of the crib, I don’t support that.”

“So when I say they’re going to take our children, I don’t mean TAKE our children. They just are saying we know best, we know how to raise these children to be productive citizens. Don’t worry, just show up at the end of the day and pick them up and we’ll take care of them.”