Race for MN GOP Party chair sparks a little drama

GOP Chair Keith Downey
GOP Chair Keith Downey spoke at the Minnesota State Office Building, Sept. 24, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2014

Legal documents from an anonymous emailer. Barbs traded on social media. An eleventh-hour candidate.

It's not quite an episode of "House of Cards," but the race for state Republican Party chair is packed with plenty of intrigue and Saturday's vote could provide some serious drama.

Two members of the party's libertarian wing are challenging incumbent Keith Downey. Some see it as a sign of a philosophical shift in the Minnesota party.

Neil Lynch, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus and one of Downey's challengers, is concerned about how the party is spending money, and the debt it still carries from the last election. He also says the party is too focused on social issues and believes the GOP's stance on same-sex marriage is keeping younger people from joining the ranks.

"If you take away the notion the GOP wants to legislate your bedroom, then all you're left with are economic issues," Lynch said. "It's much easier to talk about [conservative principles] then."

Bill Jungbauer is also running against Downey for similar reasons. Until recently, he served as the chair of Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District Republicans and on the party's executive committee.

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"I believe there's a lack of transparency, not only with what we report to the [party] activists ... and lack of transparency with us on the committee," Jungbauer said. "We have to find things out via the media and poking around in Federal Election Commission reports."

Jungbauer's presence in the race has ignited its own mini-social media storm with supporters and detractors attacking each other online and scrambling to dig up dirt.

That fight spilled off websites and into wider view recently after political reporters received an anonymous email with legal documents attached indicating Jungbauer was convicted in 2009 of a petty misdemeanor for marijuana possession and filed for bankruptcy in 1999.

Jungbauer confirmed that he filed for bankruptcy, but says he has his finances in order now. He denies the drug conviction, saying it was his son who was charged with drug possession in 2009.

"I laughed like hell when I saw it," said Jungbauer, who believes the documents were digitally altered.

For his part, Downey said he welcomes the challenge to his leadership. He argues the state's Republican Party is in much better shape than when he took the reins two years ago.

He points out that he has paid down some old debt. And in the first quarter, the party says it raised $763,000 and was able to whittle down debt by $110,000.

"I came in as chair talking about the party needing a real fundamental turnaround, and I think we've delivered on a lot of that," Downey. "Now, it's time to think about a comeback, getting in the position to win" in 2016.

David Thul, the co-chair of the Steele County Republican Party and former state party executive committee member, said it's not clear who will win a majority during Saturday's State Central Committee meeting.

"I think it's a good sign for the party that there are candidates from the libertarian wing of the party," Thul said. "I think that there's strong support for the libertarian wing that probably shows that the Minnesota Republican Party is coming closer back to its roots, to true conservative values."