Thursday, April 29, 2010

Party 'Til We're Purple

The 2010 Minnesota GOP State Convention kicks off this evening at the Minneapolis Convention Center. While I won't be attending the festivities tonight--despite all the potential drama inherent in the endorsement for State Auditor--I will be heading downtown tomorrow for Friday's frivolities. The fun starts at 9am and could continue well into the night depending on how quickly the gubernatorial endorsement contest is decided. I'll be providing updates here and on Twitter as events warrant. If you want to have an inside breakdown on the most important aspects of the GOP convention--like the best place to sneak out and grab a beer during the day's inevitable snooze sessions--this will be the place to turn.

This will mark the sixth MN GOP State Convention that I've attended as either as either an alternate or delegate, but only the second time that I get to witness the conclusion of a pitched battle for a major endorsement. In 2002, I was around until the bitter end of the hotly contested Pawlenty-Sullivan race. I was a Pawlenty man pretty much from the start that year. While I admired Sullivan for his successful business career and respected his consistent conservative principles, I didn't believe that he would be able to win in November. While conservatives tend to think that a self-made man who built a business from scratch into a multi-million dollar enterprise is the quintessential American success story, there are a fair number of Minnesotans with a strong populist streak that often spills over into class (and particularly wealth) envy. These sentiments would have been stoked by a media more than ready, willing, and able to caricature Sullivan as the epitome of the rich Republican who cares nothing for the woes of "the people" (imagine a Sack cartoon with monocle and top hat) Would this portrayal have been grossly inaccurate and completely unfair? Of course, but it also likely would have been highly effective.

Don't underestimate how much Pawlenty's down home "aw shucks" folksy manner has helped him win elections. While it remains to be seen how effectively this will play on the national scene, the nice guy next door style that he's able to comfortably exude has definitely worked to win over voters who aren't all that partisan in nature. It aided him in 2002 and was one of the reasons that he was able to win reelection in 2006 in a brutal year for Republicans. Politics isn't only about policies and positions. Personality matters as well. If it didn't, Mike Hatch would be governor right now.

So the choice in 2002 as I saw it was between a conservative candidate who could not win the general election and a slightly less conservative candidate who could. Prudence and pragmatism dictated that I support Pawlenty. And while not all conservatives have been enamored with Governor Pawlenty's two terms in office, it's a decision that I have never regretted. Well, expect for those times when Pawlenty shamelessly panders to Hugh Hewitt by awarding him meaningless titles and distinctions. As governor, Brian Sullivan never would have consorted with the likes of the silver-haired, fork-tongued shock jock from California.

For a time it seemed like we might be facing a similar situation this time around. Tom Emmer is a conservative's conservative with a strong message and a clear voice. Marty Seifert has a more establishment background and with a slightly less conservative record. Both men are excellent candidates and either would make a good governor. Going into the race, Seifert had advantages in name recognition and fundraising. He was the favorite in most minds and it probably was his race to lose. Which he seems to be on the verge of doing.

Despite having an edge out of the gate, Seifert has managed to squander his lead (admittedly hard to measure) and a fair amount of good will in the process. He's been out-organized, out-maneuvered, and out-hustled by Emmer at almost every turn. Other than raising money and getting a few key endorsements, his campaign has been a flop. Once it was clear that Emmer had overtaken Seifert in terms of delegate support (again as best as can be determined), his campaign became increasingly negative. Now there's nothing wrong with negative campaigning per se. Pointing out your opponent's voting record or previous statements on critical issues is all part of the game. But a couple of the angles of attack from the Seifert camp stretched the bounds of credulity and gave an impression that the campaign was become increasingly desperate.

These are not the words of an Emmer supporter. I voted for Seifert at the precinct caucuses. In fact, one of the best examples of how Emmer's organization ran rings around Seifert's was what transpired between caucus night and our senate district convention. Seifert won the straw poll among caucus attendees in our district rather handily. But at our district convention the tables were turned and I believe that of the 22 delegates going to the state convention, 21 are backing Emmer. That's all about hard work, networking, and organization.

And that's why I'm fairly confident that Emmer will win the GOP endorsement sometime tomorrow night, probably sooner than most would have expected just a month ago. As is typically before the convention begins, there are all sorts of rumors and speculation going around right now about things that supposedly could tip the balance one way or another. But I don't think any of them are significant enough to turn the Emmer tide. Which does give me some reason for concern. For as much as I like Tom Emmer and his views, I'm still not sold on the idea that he will be able to appeal to enough voters to win the general election.

Again, I will be more than happy to support either Seifert or Emmer and I expect Minnesota Republicans to rally around the endorsed candidate as we usually do. And I'm not saying that Emmer supporters are wrong to suppose that he is the best candidate to win come November. I just hope and pray that they're right.