BLOOMINGTON — Minnesota Republicans picked a former state lawmaker from Edina on Saturday to take over their struggling party, banking on his vow to unite a group still struggling financially and reeling from a five-year statewide losing streak.
Meeting at a Bloomington hotel for their central committee meeting, Republican activists elected Keith Downey as state party chairman for the next two years. In a speech before the vote, Downey openly acknowledged the disputes that continue to divide the party.
“I hear a lot about factions in the party. I’m pretty done with the word ‘factions,”’ Downey said.
While predicting a 2014 election cycle likely filled with candidate endorsement battles and probable Republican primaries, Downey said: “After that, we come together as Republicans and we go for the win in November.”
Downey, a consultant to state and local governments on operations and strategy who said he’d shift to full-time work for the party, represented Edina in the Minnesota House from 2008 to 2012. He lost a 2012 bid for a state Senate seat that had long been held by Republicans; in that election, Democrats overturned GOP majorities in the state House and Senate.
Downey overwhelmingly won on the first ballot Saturday against three other candidates, several of whom criticized him as the establishment choice. He immediately replaces outgoing party chairman Pat Shortridge, who took over at the end of 2011 after his predecessor, Tony Sutton, stepped down amid steep criticism of party finances.
The financial mismanagement led to a series of embarrassing headlines for the GOP, reaching a high-water mark when the party narrowly averted an eviction from its St. Paul headquarters in early 2012. Under Shortridge, the party’s finances were slowly rebuilt, though the GOP remains about $1.6 million in debt.
The party’s political fortunes aren’t faring much better. It hasn’t won a statewide race in Minnesota since 2006, when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was narrowly re-elected. And in November, the GOP lost hard-won legislative majorities seized just two years earlier — a loss by freshman GOP U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in northern Minnesota and an overwhelming victory by incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Republicans are now looking to 2014, when Democrats Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken are up for re-election and control of the state House is back on the ballot.
“What’s the last thing Democrats want? It’s a united Republican Party speaking the truth to the people of Minnesota, and that’s what I’m going to do if I’m your chair,” Downey said. He said Republicans needed to reach out to voters from constituencies traditionally viewed as Democratic.
“They have branded themselves the party of the poor, that they stand with the poor,” Downey said. “Republicans will never be content to stand with the poor in their poverty. We will link arms with them and walk out of it.”
No Republicans have yet launched campaigns against Dayton or Franken. A number of potential candidates worked the room at Saturday’s gathering.
“I hope that the Democrats think we are dead,” said House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt, who talked up the importance of also reclaiming legislative control. “Because they’re going to get a rude awakening in 2014.”