GOP Sen. Koering faces primary opposition from own party

State Sen. Paul Koering
State Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, talks to reporters Thursday, April 14, 2005, in the press room of the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid

Minnesota's only openly gay Republican legislator faces a tough challenge from his own party in Tuesday's primary, in a race receiving statewide attention, in part, because of his party's own tactics.

State Sen. Paul Koering of Fort Ripley failed to get his party's endorsement last spring. He's being challenged by former GOP state Rep. Paul Gazelka of Brainerd.

Last month, the Morrison County sheriff received a letter from the Republican Party of Minnesota. The letter requested any information in which Koering's name came up in tickets, citations, 911 calls or any other contact with law enforcement.

When Koering learned of the probe, the senator said he felt betrayed.

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"It's kind of sad and, funny thing is, is I don't even feel mad about it. I just feel disappointed that politics has gotten to this level," he said.

Koering suspects his sexual orientation may have something to do with the party's tactics. Koering announced he was gay in 2005, during his first term.

Even so, Koering won the party's endorsement the following year and went on to win a second term. Koering says he believes this time around his opponents appealed to some church groups who overwhelmed the precinct caucuses and successfully shut out long-time party loyalists.

Koering says he saw the writing on the wall and skipped the endorsement process altogether.

In June, Koering's personal life became the subject of headlines when he had dinner with a gay adult movie actor who later disclosed the date on Twitter.

The state Republican Party criticized Koering over the incident. Koering says it's a non-story. He says the focus on his personal life makes the party look bad.

"I want the Republican Party to welcome everybody, whether you're gay, whether you're straight," he said. "Believe me, there's a lot of great people in the Republican Party, but there are some people in the party that are on a -- I guess I would characterize it as a -- trying to purify the party. Apparently, I'm not pure enough."

Koering and his primary opponent, Paul Gazelka, both consider themselves conservatives. Both campaigns focus on holding down taxes and reigning in government spending.

But Gazelka criticizes Koering for some of his votes, including his support for a billion-dollar bonding bill and his opposition to a Republican backed effort to cut spending on a medical care program for the poor.

For Gazelka, the fact that Koering is gay isn't an issue, but he says they disagree on legally defining marriage.

"I feel like the traditional marriage between one man and one woman is good and healthy for our society, and he has vacillated back and forth on that, but there are plenty of people who believe that he is a supporter of gay marriage," Gazelka said.

Koering accuses Gazelka of mischaracterizing his position. Koering says he opposes same-sex marriage, but favors allowing Minnesotans to decide through a ballot measure.

Gazelka says despite their differences, he opposes the Republican Party's effort to dig up information on Koering.

Republican Party officials defend their quest for information. State party chair Tony Sutton says that kind of opposition research isn't unusual.

"It's done all the time, every single day in politics, and to treat it any differently, I think, is an attempt by Paul Koering and his supporters to make him out to be sort of a martyr or something," Sutton said.

Some within the party disagree. Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, has said publicly that he supports Koering and called him a "solid Republican."

Former Senate Minority Leader Dick Day said he's never seen such tactics used against another Republican.

"Paul votes as good as any of the Republicans I ever had in the caucus and I think it's absolutely terrible what the Republican Party is doing," Day said. "I mean, my goodness, sending a letter to a sheriff of a county, saying, 'Has this guy done anything wrong?' or whatever. Man, you talk about a witch hunt."

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face DFL candidate Taylor Stevenson of Brainerd.