Editor's note: Second of a two-part series looking at Minnesota politics with a sneak peek at 2014 from the DFL and GOP chairmen's perspectives. Last week: DFL, today: GOP.
MARSHALL - Keith Downey was chosen in April to lead a shaken Minnesota Republican party and told the Independent this week the party is on track to regain its stability, both legislatively and financially.
While the party is still digging itself out of debt, Downey's goal is to ignite unity and return the GOP to power. Republicans are in the minority of both legislative chambers and are looking toward the 2014 midterm election to restore their clout at the DFL-dominated Capitol.
And it's Downey's position that the Minnesota GOP should consider its cup half full, not half empty.
"I think voters will look at one-party rule and evaluate what has happened in St. Paul and realize we need balance," said the former two-term state representative from Edina (2009-2012). "Most fair-minded people will say that some balance is a good thing, and I think there is an opportunity for a turnaround."
When Downey took the reins, the party was suffering from a $2 million headache brought upon by previous overspending. A review of the party's financing by Minnesota Public Radio showed that a "significant amount of money went to firms and people who are closely tied" to the party and Downey's predecessor, Tony Sutton, since 2007. Sutton resigned in 2011, and the man who has replaced him said the GOP in Minnesota has trimmed its debt to below $1.7 million as his "business plan" continues to play out.
"In the past, where I might have ran (for chairman) based on politics, I ran on pragmatism," Downey said. "We needed to fix things, and I have a business plan to do that. It's not just the finances; I think some of our party capabilities really need to be rebuilt, and the delegates were receptive to that. The biggest part of that is realizing the Republican Party is not an end in and of itself, we are a means to an end, and that is to better Minnesota and enhance the lives of the people in this state. In order to do that, we've gotta fix what's going on in the party."
Downey said the GOP in Minnesota must fix the basic operations within the party and re-energize activists. He said the party needs to get back out in front of the people of Minnesota in new ways - people they "haven't been in front of for a while" - and let them know what they stand for as Republicans.
"One of the most positive features on the campaign for chairman was I got to visit with Minnesotans from all over the state," he said. "I came away convinced that the average Minnesotans, while they are living their lives, tending to their families and communities, their values are fundamentally conservative. We'll look at things we stand for in terms of creating opportunities for the middle class, the economic policies we promote to create opportunities for people - those are things that resonate with rank-and-file Minnesotans who want a decent job to care for their families rather than depend on food stamps and welfare."
While taxes were a major talking point during the 2013 session and have continued to be since a plethora of new taxes went into effect on the first of the month, Downey said it's important for Republican candidates to see a bigger picture during their 2014 campaign.
"In spite of the challenges we had two years ago when we inherited a $6 billion deficit, we found a way to balance the budget without raising taxes and increasing the lingering burden it put on businesses," he said. "We sent a pretty clear signal to the business community that we were serious about recovery before thinking about growing government. You can't argue the results we got."
Downey said results generated by Republicans before the DFL took control in St. Paul include an improved economy and an unemployment rate that continued well below the national average. He said by raising taxes, the DFL has basically doubled-down on what's happening in Washington, D.C. with more spending, more regulations and higher tax rates to pay for it.
In the 7th Congressional District, Downey says veteran Congressman Democrat Collin Peterson could be vulnerable in 2014. He cited Jim Oberstar's 2010 loss to Republican Chip Cravaack in his bid for a 19th term in the 8th District as an example of how even popular, longtime elected officials can fall.
"That showed how a long-term incumbent in the right set of circumstances can put themselves at risk," Downey said. "The seventh is a very conservative district, and Collin Peterson has managed to hold the seat for many years, but you look at some of his votes on 'Obamacare' and the farm bill and you wonder whether or not maybe this is one of those examples of how a long-term incumbent becomes out of touch with the voters."