Minnesota Republicans are looking for new leadership, and the challenges facing the next party chair and next Senate majority leader are as big as they've ever been.
The state GOP party is deep in debt and the Republican image has taken a pounding.
Republican delegates elected Kelly Fenton as the state party's deputy chair less than three weeks ago, on the heels of Tony Sutton's abrupt resignation as state party chairman. Fenton was thrust into the role of acting chairwoman until a replacement is selected on Dec. 31.
"We are very set for 2012, and I am very optimistic," she said.
Fenton is accentuating the positive in a time of turmoil for her party. She inherited a financial mess and wants to assure the GOP's big donors that she's trying to clean it up.
The party is also still talking to potential U.S. Senate candidates to take on incumbent Democrat Amy Klobuchar next year. In addition, Fenton is trying to provide a calm voice in the midst of the unfolding political scandal involving Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.
Fenton said she wants to keep Republicans focused.
"Our members of this party just have great hope and spirit, and we are a party of great strength," she said. "We can overcome the toughest challenges and I look forward to working with all of the members of our party moving forward."
Other Republican leaders offer a more sobering assessment. National Committeewoman Pat Anderson said a lot of people have been concerned for a long time about the party's finances. The state GOP recently hired an outside consultant to help get the books in order. Anderson said the debt is close to $1 million. A pile of unpaid bills total nearly $500,000 from last year's gubernatorial recount.
"The activists themselves — including myself, I'll be honest — are not happy with what has occurred," Anderson said. "People are really upset and sad about the situation, because it should have never occurred in the first place."
Anderson described the Koch incident as a case of "piling on" an already wobbly party. She said in 20 years she's never seen morale lower.
John Gilmore, a party delegate from St. Paul, said there's been a grim mood among Republicans since the Koch story surfaced. Gilmore said the party's image is tarnished, and he's not sure how long it will last.
"If you don't think it makes us look bad, then I'm not sure what planet you'd be living on," Gilmore said.
Still, Gilmore and other Republicans said they think GOP candidates can still run effective campaigns in 2012 by focusing on a message of lower taxes and limited government.
Former state Rep. Mike Osskopp of Lake City, who was briefly a candidate for state party chair, said both the financial problems and the Senate scandal pose challenges. But Osskopp said the challenges aren't big enough to hold back Republicans next fall.
"It isn't the party that's in trouble," Osskopp said. "The party is made up of thousands upon thousands of volunteers and activists, and they're strong and they're ready to go and they're committed and they're out there doing the things that we need to have done to win elections."
Senate Republicans meet next Tuesday to elect a new majority leader. State GOP delegates meet next Saturday to select a party chair.