An overwhelming majority of the Minnesota delegation to this summer's Republican National Convention will be going to Tampa, Fla., as Ron Paul delegates.
The Texas congressman had a huge influence on last weekend's Minnesota GOP convention in St. Cloud. Beyond nearly sweeping the national delegates, state Rep. Kurt Bills, Paul's endorsed candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar this fall, won the GOP endorsement over two other Republicans.
Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, was on hand for both days of the Minnesota Republican convention, his presence carefully choreographed to appease the large contingent of his supporters.
Unlike four years ago, Paul was not relegated to a speech outside the hall where the state convention was taking place. This time he took center stage on Day 1 of the convention, and many of the delegates were thrilled.
In exchange for Paul's invitation to the podium, his supporters agreed not to try to replace the leaders of the convention with their own representatives. Part two of the deal had Paul headlining a fundraising breakfast for the debt-burdened Minnesota GOP before the start of the second and final day of official convention business.
Going into the convention, Paul already had 20 of the 24 national delegates elected at district conventions around Minnesota. At the state convention, the Paul contingent won all but one of the 13 of the national delegates up for grabs.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge played down the notion that delicate negotiations surrounded the arrangement that gave Paul a path to the podium and then had him raising money for the Minnesota GOP.
"I don't think there were, you know, any deals," Shortridge said. "There was some friendly and cordial discussions between all sides and all sorts of parts of the party about 'hey, what do we want to accomplish in St. Cloud?' "
As Paul supporters have become a growing force in the Minnesota GOP, Shortridge has maintained that the new people and their energy are good things. But Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says the rise of Paul's supporters threatens to drive away mainstream Republicans and independents who view the Paul ideology as extremist.
"It's not to the Republican establishment's advantage," Jones said, "to have a state party that is controlled by people making statements that are at odds with the positions of the majority of Minnesotans as well as perhaps the majority of Republican voters in Minnesota."
Shortridge dismissed the argument that Paul backers are driving away people who would otherwise support the GOP. "There's never a problem when your movement is growing and it's expanding and it's bringing in new people. That is a terrific opportunity," he said.
K.J. McDonald, 81, of Watertown is a fixture in Minnesota Republican politics and attended the latest convention.
"I've been at every state convention since the Goldwater days of 1963," he said.
McDonald said he doesn't agree with all aspects Paul's politics, but he saluted Paul backers for their energy and organizational abilities and said they will make the party stronger.
"I think we are on the mend, and I'm encouraged by the new young people that are coming into the party, many more than I've seen in all these years that I've been coming to them, a larger number of them," McDonald said.
Ben Presley, 28, of Maple Grove was one of those new people.
"This is my first state convention, my first time being politically active," he said, adding that his support for Paul brought him to the convention but that his politics are not "Paul or nothing."
"We have to unite under one candidate to defeat our Democratic opponents, at every level of government, too," Presley said.
Presley said he enjoyed the convention and plans to remain a part of Minnesota GOP. He also said he would help the party pay down its more than $1 million debt.