After a dismal 2012, there's no "silver bullet" for the Minnesota GOP, says its new chair, Keith Downey. But a 2014 comeback, Downey believes, is still within reach if the weakened party can regain its footing in time to capitalize on a few big opportunities.
That comeback won't come solely from beefed-up fundraising, better candidate recruitment or savvier advertising. "Getting back out in front of the people of Minnesota is job No. 1," Downey said. "Identifying the new groups of voters that Republicans are going to have to appeal to and making sure that we know them in a meaningful way. Making sure we have a better brochure in October of 2014 is not going to win an election."
Last cycle, the state party failed to make the presidential race competitive, fielded a little-known Senate candidate who lost by 35 points and was nearly evicted from its headquarters as its debt reached $2 million. Downey, elected in early April, knows he faces an uphill battle, but said he sees a party on the rebound.
"That's actually one of the features of losing an election like we did in 2012," Downey said. "People begin to get motivated again and realize what it takes to win an election. People are motivated and they're recommitting to the hard work of retail politics. ... We have much more quickly than I might have even thought switched into a mode of renewed energy and drive."
But Downey is also realistic about what it will take to make Republicans competitive again statewide. In order to turn enthusiasm into dollars, candidates and, eventually, votes, the GOP first has to go about restoring its reputation. "[Rebuilding] cannot be an electoral ploy or a technique," he said. "The first thing is, you've just got to restore credibility with activists, donors and the public at large. The Republican Party is going be run in a more businesslike way. There's no shortcut to turning on fundraising if people [don't believe in what you're doing]."
Downey expressed optimism that the GOP would field stronger candidates in 2014 and said he expects competitive fields for the party's nomination in both the Senate and governor's races. While Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen both passed up chances to run statewide, Downey noted that their competitive congressional districts are much safer with them running for reelection. Instead, the party will look to "non-traditional candidates" -- particularly from the business community -- to take on Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton.
Both Franken and Dayton won narrowly in 2010 and were expected to be vulnerable in 2014, though some observers say they've put themselves in solid reelection position. Downey highlighted a few lines of attack the GOP might use to attack the incumbents. While Franken's low-key approach has kept him from being the polarizing figure some expected, Minnesotans have a different expectation from their senators, Downey said. "You really can't come up with anything where [Franken] has led in a significant way on these very big issues," he said. "The Humphreys and the Wellstones ... have been national leaders. Franken, the fact that he's mostly known for not making any gaffes, that's not what we need. He's tried to play it so safe."
As for Dayton, "he doesn't really have a strong vision for what he wants to do except for taxing people," Downey said. "I just don't know if he's exhibiting a very steady hand or real strong leadership. There's basically no reform, no advancement of state govt function."
It remains to be seen if Republicans can threaten either incumbent, or if the party can regain its financial footing and revitalize its campaign infrastructure. Downey has his work cut out for him and not much time: Republicans won't get another crack at the governor's mansion or a Senate seat until 2018.