Republicans regroup after bad election showing

Republican Supporter
A Republican party supporter watches the proceedings on the floor of the Republican National Convention 2008 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on September 1, 2008.
Photo by Stan Honda/Getty Images

Former Minnesota Republican Congressman Vin Weber doesn't think the Minnesota GOP should be feeling cocky right now.

"The best that I can say about 2008 is it was not as bad as we had feared," said Weber.

Minnesota Republicans had feared the worst. They worried they'd lose retiring Republican Jim Ramstad's congressional seat. It was also possible Democrats could pick off first-term U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. But Bachmann won, and Erik Paulsen kept the Ramstad seat in Republican hands. Still, Weber says that's not a victory.

"A victory is when you actually win things and gain seats and things like that. And we did not have a victorious night by any means," Weber said.

Minnesota's U.S. Senate race hangs in recount limbo. Minnesota went to Democrat Barack Obama by 10 percentage points, and the GOP also lost ground in the state Legislature.

But Weber also hopes Republicans don't spend too much time beating themselves up over the 2008 election.

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"Some of that is OK, I guess. But let's get on with the business of recruiting good candidates, training good candidates and identifying the issues we're going to run on," he said.

Republican strategist Pat Shortridge has a list of issues all ready to go.

"Our schools aren't performing like they should be. Our health care system's not financed properly," said Shortridge. "We have to do something about pensions, and our tax code is an albatross around the neck of both families and job creators."

Shortridge knows what it's like to lose an election. He ran Mark Kennedy's U.S. Senate campaign two years ago.

Shortridge says if Republicans want to start winning again, they need to offer solutions to those four major domestic problems. But he argues his party needs to pay attention to the way Democrats are running their campaigns.

"In terms of on-the-ground organizing, in terms of get-out-the-vote, in terms of new registrants, in terms of persuasion and communication, which is the biggest challenge, we're really getting our clocks cleaned by the left," he said.

Shortridge says if Republicans are going to make a comeback in two years, they need to get organized.

"Everybody says, 'Well, the Democrats will overreach, and that will be our salvation.' Well, they may well overreach, but if you're not in the position to take advantage of that overreach, you're no better off than you were to start with."

DFLers have also been doing some soul-searching in the week following the election. Democrats had hoped to capture those two Republican-held congressional seats, and it didn't happen.

One seat they'd hoped to win was in Minnesota's 6th District. Party strategist Michael Guest worked on DFLer Elwyn Tinklenberg's campaign, and he says the DFL has some lessons to learn.

"I think they need to find really strong candidates that match the state of Minnesota, that are able to articulate and deliver a message, and build a strong organization around that campaign," Guest said.

When asked if he thought some of the party's candidates in the election were weak, Guest responded:

"I think there were some candidates that rose through the system that were not the best fit for Minnesota."

Guest wouldn't say whether he was referring to his candidate Tinklenberg, Senate candidate Al Franken or 3rd District congressional candidate Ashwin Madia.

"I'm going to let the public decide who those people were," Guest said.

Former DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch isn't so hard on his party.

"The reality of it is -- there are eight congressional districts in Minnesota, and five of them are held by Democrats," he said.

Doing the math in his head, Hatch figures that means about 63 percent of Minnesotans have a Democrat representing them in the U.S. House.

"And 63 percent is higher than what the Democratic margin is in this state," Hatch said. "So it's unrealistic to expect the Democrats to try to get seven out of eight seats."

Hatch, who came in second in a three-way race for governor in 2006, says the DFL does need to figure out how to limit the influence of the Independence Party. Its top candidates got 10 to 15 percent of the vote this year. And that's enough to swing the outcome of a close race.

Former Independence Party chair Jack Uldrich
Former Independence Party chair Jack Uldrich said the IP party is tired of losing, but at the same time, we understand what we are undertaking isn't going to be done in two, four or maybe even six years.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

But the IP is still far from amassing enough votes to win an election. Former Independence Party chair Jack Uldrich acknowledges that's frustrating.

"We are tired of losing, and we want to win," said Uldrich. "But at the same time, we understand what we are undertaking isn't going to be done in two, four or maybe even six years."

Uldrich says the IP's numbers are rising steadily, if slowly.

"It was a good year. It could have been better," he said. One way to make it better, he said, is "to build its brand better in the public's mind."

Uldrich says most Minnesotans still don't have a clear idea of what the party stands for. Fixing that means the party will need to raise more money -- another lesson from the election.

To raise more money, Uldrich says IP candidates like Dean Barkley can't wait until mid-July to start their campaigns.

That would mean former Gov. Jesse Ventura couldn't spend months hinting about jumping into the race, only to decide against it at the very last minute.