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Not So Nice for the GOP

Declining Republican fortunes in Minnesota.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By BARRY CASSELMAN
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Next year, the entire state house of representatives is up for reelection. A good case can be made that the legislature, acting with the governor, has overreached with the many new taxes, fees, and regulations (as the previous GOP-controlled legislature did with its conservative social policy initiatives). Fortunately for the Democrats, no state senators must face reelection in 2014. Otherwise, the DFL could lose the legislature as abruptly as the GOP did in 2012.

One factor working in the DFL’s favor in the short term, however, is the virtual collapse of the state Republican party organization, which has been troubled by financial and other controversies. The state GOP’s prospects in 2014 don’t look promising. The bench of Republican candidates for statewide office is likewise limited. New and young GOP leaders not hampered by controversies who are seeking higher office are few and far between. Thus, while both Governor Dayton and Senator Al Franken are potentially vulnerable (a recent SUSA-KSTP poll showed Dayton at 47 percent), there is so far no indication that either of them will face a truly competitive opponent next year.

The potentially most formidable GOP statewide candidate, Hennepin County sheriff Rich Stanek, has told supporters he will run for reelection for sheriff in 2014. Stanek is the only recent Republican who has performed well in the state’s largest liberal base—Minneapolis is the county seat—winning with 70 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan race. (In a party-identified election for governor or senator, he might not carry this area, but his popularity means he would do much better than any other Republican could.)

Former senator Norm Coleman has chosen not to run for governor, saying he enjoys his work in the private sector, although he remains a political force behind the scenes. Congressmen John Kline and Erik Paulson both hold powerful roles in the GOP-ruled House of Representatives and have little incentive to run for the Senate.

The House races don’t look much more promising, except for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. With chain-store executive Stewart Mills III seeking the GOP nomination there, the Republicans have a good chance to win back this seat lost in 2012. In the 7th District, conservative DFLer Collin Peterson has reportedly decided to run for another term; if he retired, this would likely be another GOP pickup. Incumbent Tim Walz has disappointed many in the 1st District, which is mostly a conservative farm district, but so far does not face a strong GOP opponent. Walz ran as a centrist in the mold of long-time DFL congressman Tim Penny, but has turned out to be one of Nancy Pelosi’s most dependable liberal votes in the House. Republican prospects in the 6th District were greatly improved when colorful but controversial incumbent Michele Bachmann announced her retirement. She had barely won reelection in 2012 in the heavily GOP district and would have faced a well-financed challenge in 2014. With Tom Emmer favored to win the Republican nomination there next year, serious DFL opposition has evaporated.

So even if 2014 turns out to be a national conservative “wave” election like 2010, the GOP in Minnesota will likely gain only a single seat in the House.

It’s not just the disarray of the party organization that’s limiting Republican chances, either, but a fundamental division within the party. There’s now a split between traditional conservatives and Ron Paul libertarians. The latter faction nominated one of their own to contest the Senate seat held by Amy Klobuchar in 2012. That GOP candidate was crushed by the resulting intraparty discord, as well as the superior Democratic get-out-the-vote effort for President Obama and voter opposition to the marriage referendum.

Senator Klobuchar is now frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, and Minnesota seems destined to be the exception and not the rule in the 2014 elections. Republicans might make major gains in the state house of representatives next year. But until it resolves its identity as a party, the Minnesota GOP won’t see a return of the control and regard it enjoyed for much of the previous three decades.

Barry Casselman, a national political analyst, writes the Prairie Editor blog at barrycasselman.com.

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