Activist rumblings suggest widespread 2012 endorsement challenges
If you hear political activists calling for change in the 2012 state House and Senate elections, you won’t be faulted for thinking that the rhetoric must be coming from DFLers. After all, Democrats lost control of both chambers in a 2010 election that saw a conservative tide roll across Minnesota and the rest of the country.
But in the wake of the 2011 legislative session, the loudest cries of protest are coming from the Republican Party activist base, which is angry about the performance of their elected brethren who were installed in the majorities last January.
Perhaps no conservative voice is more strident than radio talk show host Sue Jeffers. She directs her ire particularly toward the Minnesota House, where she believes there are already several primary challenges in the offing.
“I don’t think anybody is ready to go public yet,” Jeffers said. “But let me tell you, the last count I saw was 12 [brewing endorsement challenges]. All of them but one are in the House. The House is where people want to see an enormous change.”
The Republicans managed to pass a budget without a tax increase over the objections of liberal DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to resolve a $5 billion deficit. That’s good enough for many in the Republican ranks. But Jeffers and other conservatives are clamoring over unfinished priorities such as the effort to require photo identification at the polls. They also look at the budget as a glass half-empty, because it uses borrowing schemes that boost state spending to the tune of $1.4 billion.
Base frustrated by losses on key issues
“When the Republicans lost on spending and photo ID, the conservatives became furious,” Jeffers said. “They said there’s only one way to win, and that’s to get more conservatives in there. Who would have ever thought the Senate would have been the ones reining things in? Nobody.”
Some Republican activists are frustrated that the 2010 electoral victories didn’t translate into a fuller realization of the conservative agenda. Their view of the borrowing contained in the final budget ranges from dispirited to enraged, and many are also extremely critical of the way House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch went about setting their initial budget of roughly $34 billion.
On the latter count, conservatives started to grouse when Koch and Zellers set spending targets that reflected the increase in projected revenue in the February economic forecast, said Mitch Berg, the author of the conservative blog Shot in the Dark. The proposed GOP budget represented an increase of $2 billion from the roughly $32 billion that was predicted in the forecast from November.
“We made mistakes,” Berg said. “I think a lot of us are thinking the Republicans should have started at 32 [billion] instead of going straight to 35. I think there’s a little more horse trading that could have gone on.”
Among conservative activists, Berg is more willing to give the current Republican crew time to work toward enacting the conservative agenda.
But activists like Jeffers and Rudy Takala, the chairman of the Pine County Republicans, are less flexible in their view of the Republicans’ performance in the 2011 session.
They direct their anger at three high ranking House Republican committee chairmen in particular: Reps. Jim Abeler of Anoka, Pat Garofalo of Farmington and Steve Gottwalt of St. Cloud.
Abeler has been a lightning rod among Republicans since he voted in 2008 to increase the state’s gas tax. As the chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, Abeler unveiled the final health and human services bill by noting it significantly slowed the growth curve. But he is taking heat from conservatives for failing to make deep enough cuts.
“There was too much talk about the rate of growth, and we should have been talking about cutting,” Takala said.
Jeffers and Takala expect Abeler to draw a Republican challenger in 2012.
“When I think of someone who is going to be challenged for an endorsement, Jim Abeler is the first one who comes to mind,” Takala said.
Gottwalt, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee, drew a crowd of angry Tea Party protesters to a hearing when he proposed a health care exchange system for Minnesota. Although policymakers had hopes of tailoring exchanges specifically for Minnesota, conservatives condemned the move as tantamount to adopting President Barack Obama’s health care reform legislation.
“In a revolutionary year where the conservative plank of the party put these Republicans in office, there really is a question of why anyone was proposing a Democratic plan,” Takala said. “I think it’s odd. I don’t know where your priorities are in doing that.”
Garofalo, the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, ran afoul of conservatives with an education quality rating system called Parent Aware. Conservatives decried the program for expanding the state’s education bureaucracy.
Missing big picture?
Some Republicans believe the party’s right wing is going too far in its criticisms. Garofalo and Gottwalt, they note, were central figures in pushing for conservative priorities like changing the teacher tenure system and pushing for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
“[The criticism of Garofalo] was just a head scratcher for me,” said one Republican lobbyist. “And of course, Gottwalt, he’s probably in the top 20, top 10 percent of conservatives in the body. He has nothing to apologize for. The exchanges were embraced by the chamber and the business community. There are some litmus tests [among the GOP base] that are just kind of head scratchers.”
It remains to be seen how influential the conservative wing of the party will be in the future. But no one questions their current domination of GOP party units’ endorsement process. Michele Bachmann rallied a coalition of evangelical conservatives to beat out influential establishment figures in the Republican Party for the 6th Congressional District endorsement in 2006.
Another issue is the increased presence that the state Republican Party has established at the Capitol since the election. Michael Brodkorb, who has twin duties as the Senate’s communications director and the state GOP’s deputy chairman, could prove to be a pivotal figure in intraparty battles. In the run-up to 2012, the GOP lobbyist said, it remains to be seen whether his proximity to party activists will shape how the caucus views the plight of its more moderate members.
“It will be interesting to see how that dynamic works when it comes time for an endorsement battle and the like,” the lobbyist said. In the past, “It was a foregone conclusion that the caucus sticks with its members in endorsement battles. I don’t know if that dynamic will change with Michael there and make it a different perspective. Or if he will go out of his way to have the party protect some of those members that may be more moderate.”
One interesting race will involve Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. Kriesel, who lost part of both his legs during military service in Iraq, angered the conservative base by opposing the gay marriage proposal and by being outspoken in support of raising revenue by allowing slot machines at Minnesota horse racing tracks.
For all the discontent among conservatives, Berg said Kriesel has been consistent with the spirit of his campaign’s message.
“I’m sure he’s going to get a primary challenger,” Berg said. “And I’m sure he’ll prevail.”
An unresolved issue that stokes the passions of conservatives is public funding for a Minnesota Vikings football stadium. That could energize the same voters who vented their frustrations at the size of government in the last election, Takala said.
“If [the stadium] happens, I think it will be death for Republicans in close races in 2012 because that will turn off the Republican base so much they will have a hard time recovering it in time for the election,” he said.