Smarting from election losses, state Republicans discuss strategy to regroup

Republican party headquarters
People watch as election results come in at the Republican Party headquarters Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 at the Hilton Hotel Bloomington. State GOP leaders, still smarting from numerous election defeats, are discussing how to regroup and organize efforts for the next election.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The Minnesota Republican Party's central committee meets Saturday following big defeats at the polls last month.

Tomorrow's meeting will be the last gathering of the central committee before new party leaders are elected early next year. As the party struggles to get out of debt and gain support, it faces a number of challenges in putting up a slate of winning candidates 2014.

Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2006 when Gov. Tim Pawlenty was elected to his second term. Republicans have since lost the governorship and two U.S. Senate contests, including Democrat Amy Klobuchar's 65 percent to 30 percent trouncing of Kurt Bills last month. Republican-backed constitutional amendments on marriage and voting were also defeated.

"I hope that everybody understands that when you lost, like we lost, you better learn what you did wrong and try to fix some things," said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who represents the Minnesota GOP on the Republican National Committee and also sits on the state Central Committee.

Last summer, the overwhelming majority of Minnesota delegates to the Republican National Convention went as supporters of Ron Paul. Some accuse Paulites of taking over the Minnesota GOP. As the party tries to regroup, the question is how much sway the Paul contingent will have in selecting future candidates.

"You know, I don't necessarily see it as Ron Paul supporters versus everyone else," said Marianne Stebbins, a Paul backer who chaired the delegation to this year's Republican National Convention. Stebbins said many Paul supporters intend to build on their organizing efforts from the presidential race.

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"The Ron Paul people have an opportunity to get back to those conventions," Stebbins said. "They were already elected to those local conventions and we hope to see a number of them get elected to the state central committee who then elects the chair."

Republican party headquarters
U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills, accompanied by his wife Cindy and his children, concedes the election to Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar at Republican Party headquarters on election night Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 at the Hilton Hotel Bloomington.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Johnson predicts Paul backers who are more interested in libertarian politics than Republican politics will fade away, reducing internal divisions.

Johnson said it should be obvious to those who remain that internal battling will only further cripple the state party.

"If we have some sort of civil war in 2013 about who the chair is and elect a chair that is only supported by some of the delegates, we're not going to do well in 2014," Johnson said.

Washington University political science professor Steven Smith closely follows Minnesota politics, and said as party leaders look for a path to recovery, they need to put at the top of their list finding good candidates to run against Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014.

"They need a plan to put the party organization back together, to recover their financial situation but, you know, time marches on. They can't wait to solve all their organization problems before they turn to cultivating and recruiting candidates," Smith said. "They have to get on that stick, especially for the statewide offices sooner than later."

More important than official party apparatus is behind-the-scenes leadership that can help guide the party, Smith said. That is missing from the Minnesota GOP, he said.

"Senior, experienced Republicans seem to have deserted the process and left it to factions of one kind or another to try to win endorsements and determine the candidates for the party," Smith said. "And that hasn't worked."

Iraq-Afghanistan combat veteran Pete Hegseth lost the Senate endorsement to Kurt Bills, a favorite of the tea party movement and Paul-endorsed. Hegseth followed through on his pledge not to run in a primary.

Hegseth,32, is ruling out nothing in the way of future campaigns with one notable exception: Hegseth said he will never again pledge to abide by the endorsement.

"I would advise candidates and myself would look at, if necessary, a primary if that's what it takes to ensure we've got the candidate to beat the Democrats," Hegseth said.

Even strong supporters of the GOP endorsement process predict primaries are more likely in the future, given the various factions in the party and the lopsided result of the last Senate election.