2012 will be an active political year in Minnesota, with races for president, U.S. Senate, the eight members of the U.S. House and all seats in the Minnesota Legislature to be decided in the November election. Political parties, candidates and outside groups will raise and spend millions of dollars over the course of the year to sway voters.
But a shifting political landscape could make it more difficult for the state's two major political parties to operate the same way they have in the past.
That message was delivered by Minnesota's Republican Party leaders this past weekend, as they discussed how to cover their party's nearly $2 million debt.
"Our state party is at a crossroads," Deputy Chair Kelly Fenton said to the 350 delegates at the St. Cloud meeting. "We can't be all things to all people. Hard choices will need to be made as we refocus on the future and seize opportunities to do what we do best."
The Republican Party's financial problems came to light at a time when many are questioning the very relevance of political parties. Across the country, party leaders of all political persuasions are working to raise money in an era when major donors can choose among a wider array of political groups.
For example, some third-party groups have lower overhead and can spend money on advertising with fewer restrictions than political parties. Newly elected Minnesota Republican Party Chair Pat Shortridge now has the task of raising money for the party in that environment.
“Our state party is at a crossroads. We can't be all things to all people.”Deputy Minn. GOP Chair Kelly Fenton
"Our values and principles and beliefs are solid and strong, and they're working. We don't need to reevaluate those. But I do think we need to reevaluate almost everything else in terms of how we operate the party," he said.
Shortridge lists the Minnesota Republican Party's top functions as identifying Republican voters, improving party messaging and doing better research for candidates. And his top goals are to maintain Republican majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate, and re-elect the four Republican incumbents in the U.S. House.
He's less inclined to devote resources toward the presidential race or the campaign to defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, saying the party will do so only if there are "opportunities there."
"We're going to have to be very, very careful with our resources, and spend them wisely on behalf of a few well-focused programs," said Shortridge.
Shortridge along with other GOP officials insist that they can manage the party's problems.
But raising money in a down economy isn't going to be that easy.
"Obviously, it's more difficult to raise money to pay off debts than it is to raise money to elect candidates," said Bill Cooper, former state Republican Party chair who also serves as CEO of TCF Bank.
Cooper said he inherited a debt of about $500,000 when he became party chair in 1997, but was able to pay it off. Cooper has donated more than $700,000 to the Republican National Committee, the Minnesota GOP and other state parties between 1994 and 2006. He scaled back his contributions significantly after that time, because he said he became tired of being a target of GOP critics, and disgusted by the gridlock on the state and national levels.
Cooper said rising competition from third-party groups could make it more difficult for party officials to raise money than it was in his day.
"It probably has impacted ... the role of the party in terms of what it does and how it does it may have changed in that connection in the way funding occurs," said Cooper.
Minnesota's DFL Party also has a debt to cover -- roughly $200,000, according to Party Chair Ken Martin. But Martin said he believes political parties will stay relevant for years to come.
"The one thing that we do that other groups don't do is the grassroots and the field piece," said Martin. "The voter ID, the get out the vote, the persuasion work. All of that stuff is done by the party and its candidates, and can't be replaced by independent expenditure groups."
Martin said the Minnesota DFL Party's top goals in 2012 are re-electing President Obama and Sen. Klobuchar, defeating Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District and winning control of the Legislature.