Minnesota Republicans will gather Saturday morning in Bloomington to elect a new party chair. The person selected will lead an organization that is deep in debt and facing uncertainty about its future.
Meanwhile several outside groups have formed to start on work that has traditionally been done by the party.
Gov. Mark Dayton is used to having a consistent batch of reporters track him after news conferences and public events. But over the last few months, a new face -- working for a group called the Minnesota Jobs Coalition -- has been appearing at Dayton's events to videotape everything the governor says. Sometimes the group blasts video clips of Dayton out to the public and press on the Internet.
In the past, political tactics like this were used by the Minnesota Republican Party. But in the past year new independent conservative groups have begun taking a more active partisan role.
Ben Golnik, chair of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said his group is looking to fill a vacuum.
"Our mission statement is very simple: It's holding elected officials accountable on those important issues of jobs and the economy," Golnik said. "We don't have a lot of the party-building activities that can take up a lot of time and resources. And the very stark reality is the state Republican Party of Minnesota is $1.5 million in debt. It's very difficult for them to be able to do a lot of activities while they are carrying this large amount of debt."
It's no coincidence that the new conservative groups are forming as the Minnesota Republican Party is strapped for cash and the rank and file party faithful squabble over the direction of the party. Case in point: backers of Texas Rep. Ron Paul's presidential bid overwhelmed the state party convention last year even though Mitt Romney was already the party's presumptive nominee.
“Our mission statement is very simple: It's holding elected officials accountable on those important issues of jobs and the economy.”Ben Golnik, Minnesota Jobs Coalition
That kind of infighting has led other outside groups to look past intra-party politics and work directly on issues.
Over the past month, the group Americans for Prosperity-Minnesota mailed out campaign literature criticizing Democrats and even one Republican legislator for supporting tax increases. Americans for Prosperity-Minnesota is focused on building grassroots support for conservative causes, said John Cooney, the group's director.
"Truly it doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat. If you're pushing bad bills, we're going to point it out," Cooney said. "We're going to explain why we don't believe it's a good bill and let our activists decide if they want to get behind that issue or not."
In some instances, Americans for Prosperity-Minnesota has spent money to help fiscally conservative candidates win GOP primary battles. He said it is possible the group will get involved if there is a primary battle for statewide office next year.
Another group, Minnesota Action Network, was founded this year by former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman to push conservative issues.
Last month, the group released survey results that found most Minnesotans think conservatives don't understand issues affecting them. The group's director, former Republican state Rep. Laura Brod, says the survey also found the Republican Party is too focused on social issues and defending corporate interests. She said her group is starting to move beyond traditional party politics.
"Parties play a specific role, but there's also a need for other folks out there to be advocating on issues that are important to Minnesotans and to do it in different ways," Brod said. "If you want to build a coalition around an issue or around a set of issues, it takes more than just party identification to do that."
Brod, Golnik and Cooney declined to disclose who is contributing money to their groups. That provides some cover for wealthy donors who do not want their contributions disclosed. It also means that several groups could be fighting over conservative donors who have traditionally had one place to send their money -- the Republican Party of Minnesota. That may be a reason why the party is having trouble retiring its debt.
The chair of Minnesota's Republican Party did not return calls to discuss what the outside groups mean for the future of the party.