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Downey elected state GOP chair

Keith Downey, the former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, is entering the 2018 race for governor. MPR Photo.

Party delegates today elected former state Rep. Keith Downey of Edina as chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.

The vote came at a meeting in Bloomington. Downey, who won on the first ballot, defeated three other candidates to win the position. He said he wants to unite Republicans who have squabbled over the party's direction in recent years.

"The key to our support is to have a united group of Republicans speaking the truth and getting out in front of the people of Minnesota," Downey told party delegates. "That is how we're going to win in 2014. I believe that in my heart."

Downey served in the Minnesota House from 2009 until last year. He lost a bid for the state Senate last November. Downey has the difficult task of leading a party that is more than $1.5 million in debt and is divided over the best direction for the future.

He takes over as chair from Pat Shortridge, who did not seek a second term.

Downey said Shortridge did an excellent job of rebuilding the party after Tony Sutton abruptly quit as party chair in 2011. A detailed internal audit found that the party was nearly $2 million in debt at the time.

Shortridge told reporters after the event that he is leaving the party in better shape than when he was elected. For his part, Downey isn't making any promises on how fast they'll erase the party's debt, but he said he hopes he can persuade donors to start giving again.

"There are a lot of people, and they are major donors and they are minor donors who have been sitting on the sidelines," Downey said. "I hope with the positive momentum that we've got, we can go out and execute a plan across all levels and restore giving to the party."

Republicans are looking to end a political drought for statewide office. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the last Republican to win statewide office and that was in 2006. Democrats also control both chambers of the Legislature.

One Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, all of the constitutional offices including governor, every seat in the U.S. House and every seat in the Minnesota House are on the ballot in 2014.

Several potential gubernatorial candidates, including Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, state Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove and state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville, were at the Bloomington meeting talking with delegates.

No candidates have yet announced that they intend to challenge DFL Sen. Al Franken or DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Delegates also re-elected Kelly Fenton as deputy chair of the party and Chris Fields as party secretary.