Politics and Government

After years in electoral doldrums, Minnesota GOP pins hopes on sour voter mood

Crowd under American flag
The Minnesota Republican Party convention at the St. Paul RiverCentre on Friday.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Minnesota Republicans are out of power in St. Paul, have for long been low on money and haven’t notched a statewide victory in 18 years. 

The party emerged from a weekend state convention with a pile of money that former President Donald Trump helped bring in. But divisions on the direction of the GOP and the strength of its ticket remain as the campaign ramps up. 

As candidate filing opens Tuesday, Republicans are leaning hard into a sour voter mood over nagging inflationary pressures and discomfort with the U.S. approach to wars abroad. Democratic President Joe Biden is trying to thread a needle on both counts.

Man smiles
GOP convention delegate Mohamed Ahmed thinks Republicans have the upper-hand when it comes to the issues Americans are most concerned about, pictured on Saturday in St. Paul.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“People are fed up and that’s the biggest biggest advantage the Republicans have is people are fed up,” said Mohamed Ahmed a 49-year-old delegate from Plymouth. “They’re fed up with the cost of living, they’re fed up with the prices at the grocery store and they’re looking for solutions.”

“I think a lot of people have been unhappy the last four years with Biden,” said second-time Republican state convention delegate Kennedy Pelzo, a 27-year-old from Princeton. “And so I think it’s waking up a lot of people and as long as we can get those people to the voting booths, I think we have a solid chance this year.”

Woman smiles
GOP convention delegate Kennedy Pelzo on Saturday in St. Paul.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The ability of Republicans to connect those messages with credible candidates will dictate whether 2024 amounts to a party resurgence or another disappointment.

The main business of the convention was the endorsement of a candidate to run against three-term DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Delegates did that after just one round of balloting. They chose podcaster and former professional basketball player Royce White.

White is running as an anti-establishment candidate. He ripped the role of money in politics.

“This isn’t about money. This is about all of you. This is about you,” White told delegates. “The number one problem in this country is money in politics. Candidates who can be bought; we wonder why this country is such a mess. And the reality is we need people now more than ever that can’t be bought. They don’t have a price and I can’t stress that to you enough.”

White has an uphill fight ahead of him. Klobuchar has rolled over three prior Republican candidates. The national GOP hasn’t made the race a priority and the attention of the state Republican Party is likely to be on other races this year — the competitive 2nd Congressional District and the race for the Minnesota House are higher up the list.

Klobuchar and the DFL state party didn’t even acknowledge White’s endorsement, a departure from past practice in races at this level.

Republicans can’t afford to have the top-of-the-ticket sag because that can have down-ballot effects. The party’s suburban support has eroded and it has been swamped by Democratic votes in the Twin Cities.

A man points and yells.
Republican candidate for Senate Royce White argues with demonstrators outside the Republican State Convention before former President Donald Trump's remarks at Rivercenter in St. Paul on Friday.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

White, who is African American, told the convention he can bring more people of color to the GOP.

“My effort in Ramsey, in Dakota and Hennepin County is going to be simple,” he said. “Black people in this state and all across the country believe in a very, very common idea that the government is too big and it’s usually corrupt.”

White acknowledged personal debt problems that led to eviction and collection efforts. He did not address past criminal convictions and other court judgments against him. The state party qualified White’s candidacy “with reservations.”

White pushed back. 

“The same reservations they had about me would surely fall upon Donald Trump as well if he was running in this race,” he said.

Trump addressed Minnesota Republicans on Friday at a major fundraiser. It was expected to pull the state party out of debt after years of struggles and leave a cushion besides.

If Trump puts effort and money into contesting Minnesota that could shake up the picture. No Republican presidential candidate has won Minnesota since 1972.

White has raised just $10,000 for his campaign through March. Klobuchar has many millions in the bank. 

Several Republicans were vying for the party’s backing, including Navy veteran Joe Fraser who had support from some key national Republicans.

Throughout the convention, division in the Minnesota GOP was evident. There were rules fights, boos that some members of Congress encountered and attempts to shake up party leadership on the spot.

Sixth District U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a member of U.S. House leadership, appealed for cohesion. 

“We have to unify around strong Republican candidates,” he said. “And we have to do our part to carry out our conservative message throughout our communities.”

Emmer encouraged Republicans to get involved in turning out voters.

“What does that look like? It looks like volunteering for our great Republican candidates. Your time is one of the most valuable tools in the fight for the future of this country.”

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