Two years after their party made historic inroads in a traditionally deep-blue state, Republicans in Minnesota find themselves again looking at a period of rebuilding.
Voters last week rebuffed the GOP, handing Democrats control of the state Legislature, sending Democrat Amy Klobuchar back to the U.S. Senate and torpedoing a constitutional ban on gay marriage — an expensive measure spearheaded by social and religious conservatives that some say took focus off the GOP’s more favorable issues, such as the economy.
With Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton holding down the statehouse and a powerful new Legislature at his behest, any strategy to turn Minnesota red will have to be rethought, policy experts say.
“I think Minnesota is a state that is in search of a pragmatic, get-the-job done politics,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science who directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
“The Republicans, when they were in the Legislature, kind of veered off into a pretty hard line on no new taxes and significant budget cuts as the strategy. This is not surprising,” Mr. Jacobs said, explaining GOP losses. “But Minnesotans are not on that page. I think the addition of the social policy issues further complicated the challenge for Republicans.”
For them, Mr. Jacobs added, last week’s election was a “real comedown.”
Minnesota Republicans have been hurt in recent years by financial hurdles, posting nearly $1 million in debts at the beginning of the latest election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission reports. While Republicans in the Legislature held strong last year as they united against Mr. Dayton’s proposal to increase income taxes to raise revenue — he shut down state government for three weeks during their fight — the GOP’s long-term legislative gains were minimal, and they lost public support.
Minnesota Republicans also were divided after a caucus precinct nominating process exposed a divide between tea party supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul and more traditional mainstream Republican party members.
“If we don’t become the party of addition and multiplication, we will become the party of division and subtraction,” warned Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills in an election night concession speech, reported by Minnesota Public Radio, after he lost to Ms. Klobuchar by a bigger than 2-1 margin.
“So it’s time to start learning that once you have that endorsement process, you come together and you run against the opponents. And the opponents are the blue guys, all right?” he said, making reference to divisions in the GOP ranks.
Republicans in Minnesota, as elsewhere, also may have to reconcile the strategic prowess of Democrats, whose organizational ground game made them formidable, with both Ms. Klobuchar and Al Franken in the Senate and Democrats holding five out of eight seats in the state’s congressional delegation for the next two years.
In 2014, Mr. Franken and Mr. Dayton will be up for re-election as the Obama agenda, including its health care plan, moves ahead in a second term with a divided Congress.
Mr. Jacobs says the message for Minnesota Republicans is that “voters here do not want a one-party ideological solution. They want pragmatic solutions that fix problems.
“If the Democrats come back with a ‘taxes-first,’ then social-liberal agenda, then they are likely to get tossed in 2014,” he said.
For now, he said, state GOP leaders must reassess: “It’s kind of a sad situation where the Minnesota state Republican Party was one of the most talented and [smartest] a decade ago, and today, it’s in tatters. The Republican Party needs to do some party-building.”