Republican leaders call for unity after Sutton resignation

Roughly 350 Republican delegates and staffers are assessing the fallout less than 24 hours after Tony Sutton abruptly resigned as state party chair. Sutton cited personal reasons for his resignation but it came at a time when several activists were upset with how he handled the party's budget. Party officials announced at a meeting in Bloomington Saturday that the party was $581,000 in debt.

"Let's all take a deep breath," state Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said during the invocation.

Delegates elected a new deputy chair on Saturday but were also facing a party that lost its chair, deputy chair and executive director over the last two months. The vacancies forced the delegates to even elect two convention chairs to run the meeting.

Delegates worked relatively quickly to elect new leadership. They elected Woodbury resident Kelly Fenton to the position of deputy chair. Fenton defeated four other candidates. She'll serve as acting chair until the same group, party's central committee, elects a new chair.

During a brief victory speech, Fenton alluded to the problems plaguing the party and predicted Republican candidates will do well in the 2012 election.

"We are stronger than any challenges that we will face," Fenton said.

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Fenton said she will not be a candidate to replace Sutton but left open the possibility of running for party chair in the future.

Fenton's top priority over the next month will be to ease concerns about the party's financial problems and direction. She got some help from Republican Congressmen John Kline and Erik Paulsen.

"We have precinct caucuses in two months," Kline said. "We have to be organized and ready and moving out because as you may have noticed, the campaigns are underway."

Kline later told reporters that he wasn't deeply concerned about the party's leadership in the upcoming elections. Others said the party's day-to-day activities would run normally over the next month.

The stakes in the upcoming election are huge. President Barack Obama and DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar are both running for re-election. Republicans are waiting to see who wins the GOP nomination for president, and no top flight candidate has stepped forward to challenge Klobuchar.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who serves as RNC Committeeman, says he thinks President Obama's low approval ratings will help Republicans in 2012. But he said the party needs to raise money for get out the vote operations.

"We can't just stop for a month and then start up again when we have a permanent chair," Johnson said. Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers also said he would be willing to help raise money to get the party out of debt.

Zellers also asked delegates to not to do any "Monday morning quarterbacking" about Sutton's departure.

But there was some disagreement over who is to blame for the party's problems. Michael Brodkorb, who resigned his position as deputy chair in October to work on state Sen. Mike Parry's campaign for Congress in the 1st District, said the party's deficit and problems are a result of Tom Emmer's campaign for governor.

Brodkorb said Emmer ran a poor campaign which hurt the party's ability to raise money.

Brodkorb referred to Emmer as the "Bill Buckner of politics" - a reference to the Red Sox first baseman who made an error that cost his team the 1986 World Series.

"I think Republicans nominated the one candidate who couldn't possibly win in 2010," Brodkorb said.

Brodkorb also said the party had difficulty raising money because many donors weren't happy that he was the nominee. He also said several Republican candidates didn't want to campaign with Emmer because he was "toxic" to their campaigns.

Emmer narrowly lost the gubernatorial election to Democrat Mark Dayton. The close election forced a recount that both Brodkorb and Sutton blame for adding to the party's financial problems.

Emmer was at the State Central Committee earlier in the day but couldn't be reached to comment on Brodkorb's statement. His former campaign manager, David Fitzsimmons, said he was surprised by Brodkorb's criticism.

"I am not going to sit here today and try to decide who is to blame," Fitzsimmons said. "We can all go around and point fingers and do everything else. I'm part of being at this convention today to figure out how to move forward from here."

Delegates decided not to set a date to hold a meeting to elect a new party chair. The party's constitution requires an election to occur within 30 days, but the party's attorney said Fenton would continue to be acting chair if no election is held.

Fenton or the party's executive committee will call the next meeting.