Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tundra Recovery

Later tonight, I’ll join Hugh Hewitt and a number of my former Northern Alliance Radio Network colleagues at an event called “Taking Back the Tundra” at the Marriot Minneapolis Northwest. The main topic of the evening is going to be Minnesota politics, specifically what could/should be done to reverse the tide of blue which has swept over the state. To be accurate, it shouldn’t really be called “Taking Back the Tundra” in terms of a reconquista to recapture lost land as Minnesota was never free of progressive control. Sure there was a time in the early 2000s when it appeared the state was becoming more purple and some even talked about making it red, but if you look at the long view you see that we’ve been a fairly consistent bastion of blue.

When it comes to what conservatives/Republicans/enemies of statism would have to do to tilt the political balance back in their favor the list of areas of improvement is long:

- Messaging
- Organizing
- Getting out the vote
- Fundraising
- Social media

And this is a just a starting point. However, in my view there are two critical areas that Minnesota Republicans must focus on if they want to have any hope of turning things around: candidates and campaigns. More specifically, there are two actions they need to execute in these areas:

1. Nominate good candidates

2. Run good campaigns

Neither are revolutionary suggestions and in fact fielding good candidates and running good campaigns are basic essentials of successful politics. And yet the Minnesota GOP has for the most part failed to deliver on either of them for the last twenty years or so. Nowhere is this failure more obvious than in statewide races. These include the two US Senate seats which are contested every six years and the five state constitutional offices (governor, secretary of state, state auditor, and attorney general) which are contested every four. Going back to 1996, the MN GOP has lost most of these state wide races being beaten by such notable candidates as Jesse Ventura, Mark Dayton (twice), and Al Franken (and another GOP loss to Franken looms in 2014).

There were six US Senate races in Minnesota from 1996-2012. The GOP won one and that was in 2002 with Paul Wellstone’s death and the controversy over the Wellstone memorial service looming large in Norm Coleman’s victory. In 2012, Amy Klobuchar’s margin of victory 34.70% was larger than the percentage of votes that Kurt Bills received 30.53%. All told the MN GOP has a .16 winning percentage in these races.

There have been a total of sixteen constitutional office races from 1998-2010. The GOP won six and one of those was Judi Dutcher’s 1998 victory in the race for state auditor. Dutcher later switched parties and joined the DFL. While the MN GOP has done better here than in the US Senate, the .375 winning percentage is nothing to brag about.

Keep in mind that these results occurred during a period where Minnesota was often considered “in play” politically. Some years have been better for the GOP during this time and some worse. So by winning only 16% of the US Senate races and 37.5% of the constitutional office races the GOP is clearly underperforming expectations.

So let’s get back to basics starting with good candidates. Of the six constitutional offices that the GOP won during this period, two were victories by Tim Pawlenty when he was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in 2006. Tim Pawlenty was a good candidate and the GOP made the right choice by endorsing him in 2002. Some conservative purists view Pawlenty as a RINO because he raised cigarette taxes by fifty cents a pack and called it a fee and because-like most Midwestern pols of his time-he came down on the wrong side on ethanol. Was Pawlenty a perfect conservative? Of course not. Was he a good candidate? Obviously.

Certain local conservative pundits like to say that we never elect conservatives in Minnesota because we really never run truly conservative candidates. Really? Kurt Bills was plenty conservative and he got walloped by Amy Klobuchar. Why? It wasn’t because he wasn’t conservative enough, it was because he was not a good candidate. Being a good conservative is not enough. You need a good candidate to win. If we really want to have any hope of turning the state around, we need to be willing to sacrifice some of the former attribute to make sure we have the latter.

Then there are the campaigns. At times a good candidate can overcome a bad campaign and vice versa. And bad campaigns can sink candidates who should win. With little margin for error this is something the MN GOP afford to have happen yet it has again and again. 2008 was a Democratic year, but Norm Coleman should not have lost to Al Franken. Coleman’s campaign was a mess with muddled messages and indecision about whether to attack Franken’s many weaknesses or play Minnesota nice with him. This failure haunts us to this day (Obamacare) and will haunt us again next year when Franken is reelected. And no whining about how the election was stolen. As Hugh said in his book, if it’s not close they can’t cheat. And running against Al Franken shouldn’t have been close.

You can argue whether Tom Emmer was a good candidate for governor in 2010 or not. You can’t argue whether his campaign was a disaster or not since it clearly was. 2010 was a Republican year nationally and even locally. The MN GOP took control of both the House and Senate yet somehow we couldn’t beat Mark Dayton. Why? Emmer ran a lousy campaign plain and simple. After he defeated Mary Seifert to secure the GOP nomination, there was a lot of back slapping and self-congratulation within Team Emmer about the masterful job they had done and how clever they were. This hubris may have lead them to assume that knocking off Mark Dayton in a good year for the GOP would be relatively easy. Whatever the reason, the campaign struggled to get out of the gate, got bogged down on side issues, and never developed any sense of direction or momentum. Like Coleman’s loss to Franken, this defeat has caused lasting damage to the GOP both in what could have accomplished with control of all three branches in 2011 and 2012 and what could have been prevented this year.

The Republican Party of Minnesota has plenty of work to do to order to become relevant again. But if they don’t identify and endorse good candidates and plan and execute smart campaigns none of the rest of it will matter.