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Why 2,200 GOP convention-goers matter more in the Minnesota governor’s race than 320,000 Republican voters

The GOP endorsement has become a must-win for statewide Republican candidates in Minnesota.

A scene from the 2018 Republican state party convention in Duluth.
A scene from the 2018 Republican state party convention in Duluth.
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday

The 2022 Republican field for governor of Minnesota is growing, with six candidates now vying for the office, and each has delivered speeches aimed at appealing to Republican voters across the state.

But not all Republican voters.

For the next nine months, the main target of the campaigns is not the 320,000 people or so who voted in the last GOP primary. Instead, it’s the 2,200 who will attend the 2022 GOP state convention in Rochester — the relatively small group of activists who will decide which of the candidates will carry the party endorsement.

That’s because unlike the DFL, which has produced the last two governors — both of whom won the Democratic primary by beating endorsed candidates — the GOP endorsement is a must-win for statewide Republican candidates in Minnesota. In the last thirty years, just once has a non-endorsed Republican candidate for statewide office won the party’s primary.

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“You really can’t win a statewide election if you haven’t been endorsed,” said Jen Niska, who has been a staffer on numerous statewide GOP campaigns, including those for Tom Emmer, Mike McFadden and Jeff Johnson.

In the GOP, no endorsement = no chance

The six Republicans who have announced their campaigns so far are former Sen. Scott Jensen, Michael Marti, Michael Murphy, Neil Shah, Sen. Michelle Benson and Sen. Paul Gazelka. All of them have pledged not to run in the August 2022 Republican primary if they don’t win the 60 percent of delegates needed to get the party’s endorsement at the state GOP convention next May in Rochester. In campaign-speak, each has said they will “abide” by the endorsement. (UPDATE: Murphy said he is not committed to leaving the race if he is not endorsed.)

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There’s a simple reason for that. While Minnesota’s political history has shown that not all GOP candidates abide by the endorsement, it’s also shown that Republican primary voters don’t reward non-endorsed candidates very often. The one exception came in 1994, when Arne Carlson won the GOP primary over the party’s endorsed candidate, Allen Quist. The twist: Carlson was the incumbent governor at the time, making that result the exception that might just prove the rule.

That rule has held true whether a candidate sought the endorsement and lost or bypassed the convention process altogether. In 2018, Jeff Johnson won the GOP endorsement after the perceived frontrunner, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, opted to skip the convention and go directly to the primary. Johnson had also been the endorsed candidate in 2014, when he defeated three prominent GOP opponents who hadn’t really sought the endorsement. “Jeff’s races have proven that that endorsement at a statewide level still matters a lot,” said Danny Nadeau, a central figure in Johnson’s campaigns in both years.

Niska said the Pawlenty-Johnson race was the contest that illustrated the strength of the party endorsement more than any other. “A former governor with 100 percent name ID is running in a primary against a GOP-endorsed candidate,” Niska said.

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Because he’d run statewide before and had a national fundraising base from his 2012 presidential race, Pawlenty could neutralize a key advantage of the endorsement: access to the party’s voter lists and donors. And yet in the end it wasn’t even close. Johnson beat Pawlenty in the August GOP primary by more than 28,000 votes.

Niska was also helping U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden in 2014 when he won the endorsement of the party in a rather unusual way: He admitted that he would run in the primary whether he was endorsed or not. While such declarations are usually a huge liability at the state GOP endorsing convention — delegates tend to think “abiding” by the endorsement is rule No. 1 for any candidate — McFadden worked hard to get the nod, telling the crowd there he valued the endorsement and would be honored to receive it.

Even so, McFadden won the endorsement over Chris Dahlberg after 10 rounds of balloting that stretched over two days, and only did so with the help of a late-breaking endorsement from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

The wooing process

But if Republican candidates know they can’t get to their ultimate goal — to be on the ballot in November — without winning the GOP endorsement, what do they have to do to get there?

First, to have any hope with most of the party activists who make up the pool of delegates, they must be conservative.

Second, given former President Trump’s success in getting his supporters involved at all rungs of the GOP — and his continued influence over all aspects of the party — they probably shouldn’t be (or run as) Never Trumpers.

All of the currently declared candidates pass those tests. So what then?

Cullen Sheehan
Cullen Sheehan
“There is a lot of overlap between how you run an endorsement campaign versus a primary or general election,” said Cullen Sheehan, who worked on all of former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman’s statewide campaigns. “You do the same tactical things: direct mail, volunteer phone banking, telemarketing and door-to-door campaigning as well. The difference obviously is it’s not five million people or even a million people, it’s 2,200 delegates and three-to-four thousand alternatives.”

The GOP endorsement process begins with precinct caucuses in February, then proceeds to what the party calls Basic Political Organizing Unit (BPOU) conventions. These are gatherings based on geographic areas, which are often based on either state Senate or House districts or counties. And after the BPOU conventions comes the congressional district conventions.

To be competitive, candidates need to motivate supporters not only to attend the conventions at each level, but to run to become delegates (and win). Then they need to make sure those delegates attend the state convention — and keep their pledge to support a candidate through multiple ballots.

“It’s a nightmare to manage,” said Nadeau. “There are 134 BPOUs in Minnesota. They all have to happen in February. Your candidate can’t be at every one. … So you have to line up surrogates and teams, you need these champions for your candidate.”

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One of the most important jobs for campaigns is to keep the delegate count, Sheehan said. Someone needs to know each delegate’s name, who they support, their alternate delegates, and who else in the party they trust and might influence them. “You know exactly who these people are, and good campaigns will talk to each and every one of them multiple times and in multiple ways,” he said.

Jen Niska
Jen Niska
Since delegates tend to participate cycle after cycle, finding many of them isn’t hard. “I could probably predict 60 percent of the people who will be delegates [in 2022] even though we still haven’t chosen those people,” Nadeau said. “It’s the same people all the time,” Niska said. The rest — maybe 40 percent of delegates — will be newcomers to party politics, or at least people who haven’t been involved year after year. That gives campaigns the opportunity to make sure some of their supporters are among the crop of the newly engaged.

All of the delegates will eventually become very familiar with the candidates, and the candidates’ top staffers, and the candidates’ surrogates. “It’s very much relationship-based and very personal,” Nadeau said. “Delegates invest themselves. They volunteer. They want candidates to call them.”

A candidate’s call might be followed with a call from a local Republican surrogate explaining why they support a candidate — and why the delegate should too. “If you can get three people to call that delegate — and I don’t mean this to be disrespectful to the delegate — that chest-puffery and the importance of their vote and how they view themselves in the process is elevated,” Nadeau added.

“They do remember who called them and who didn’t,” Niska said of delegates. “It is extremely important that they hear from candidates. It’s more than an ego trip. They think, ‘How are you going to win a general if you can’t get a hold of 2,200 delegates?”

Niska said an expected delegate could receive 100 or more “contacts,” including calls, text messages, targeted Facebook messages and emails. And she reminds campaigns that alternate delegates should also be pursued since it’s common for delegates to be unable (or unwilling) to attend the next level of the process, which means the alternate will be the actual voter.

It’s a process that also includes plenty of face-to-face interaction with candidates. “In a primary or general election that’s impossible,” Sheehan said. “In an endorsement process, you’re not going to have much success if you don’t touch each and every person, talk to each and every person. And in some instances, you’re doing it in their own kitchen.”

A geographic and demographic challenge for the GOP

Nadeau said Republicans in Minnesota have a challenge that DFLers do not. Because of the way the GOP allots delegates across congressional districts — based on the majorities they delivered in past elections— many of those people increasingly come from GOP strongholds: the mostly rural and exurban 1st, 6th, 7th and 8th congressional districts.

“The strength of that convention has shifted over the last decade. Where there used to be a lot of power in the 3rd, there’s now less power in the 3rd, there’s more in the 6th, there’s more in the 7th, there’s more in the 8th. There will be more delegates from Greater Minnesota than from the metro, and what they think and what they believe are very different than what Republicans in the metro think and feel.

photo of candidate
Danny Nadeau
Nadeau said that, theoretically, a candidate could win every delegate vote at the state level from the mostly urban and suburban 3rd, 4th, 5th and 2nd congressional districts and probably still not win the endorsement. “It’s a challenge,” he said. “If you have a Metro-centered candidate, he’s got a little more work to do than a candidate from Greater Minnesota in that process.”But the parts of the state with the most GOP delegate strength are also areas losing overall population to the Metro area districts.

“It’s a conundrum,” Nadeau said.

Simultaneous campaigns

Despite the first-things-first nature of a gubernatorial bid in Minnesota, those with experience navigating the process warn candidates against waging a purely linear campaign: focusing only on the endorsement until May and then shifting to a statewide campaign footing.

“You have multiple campaigns you have to run right now,” Niska said. That means running for the endorsement and for the primary, but also with an eye on the general election and the expected DFL candidate, Gov. Tim Walz.

“One of the mistakes that candidates … make is not thinking about that general election,” she said. They spend too much time distinguishing themselves from other Republicans and “not actually going after the DFL candidate.”

“The endorsement happens in May, and it takes so much work to get through caucuses and the BPOU convention and the congressional district convention and the endorsement,” she said. “If you’re not actively planning for the primary and the general, there is just not enough time to pivot.”