Sitting in his St. Paul office overlooking the Minnesota state Capitol, Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey says there was a point in his life when, in his “wildest dreams,” he never would have imagined sitting at the helm of a state political party.
“I was in business and doing my thing, but now here I am,” said Downey, a former state House representative from Edina.
In many ways, activists and operatives think Downey is the perfect person for the job right now. It’s been nearly two years since the resignation of former party chairman Tony Sutton, who left in his wake a mess of misfiled reports and undisclosed debt from the 2010 election reaching $2 million. With years of experience in business consulting before he ran for the Legislature, Downey came to the state party with a “turnaround plan” that focused on paying the party’s bills and returning focus to what he calls “blocking and tackling” duties. That means bread-and-butter party operations: voter identification and lists, endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts.
His plan appears to be working, albeit slowly. While the Republican Party of Minnesota’s monthly federal campaign finance filings provide an incomplete picture – and no state filings are due until the end of the year – they still show a dramatically improved situation. The party’s federal account raked in $236,253 in August of this year. That’s by far the party’s best haul of 2013 and up from a July fundraising total of $190,000. The party has also whittled down some of its debts, according to Downey. The party had $1.7 million in debt when he came into office in April, but that number now stands at about $1.3 million.
Republican Party finance director Brandon Sawalich said August was their best fundraising month in five years.
“Fundraising is strong and active. We have significantly lowered the party debt by $400,000 over the last five months,” Sawalich said. “The fundraising is strong and the Republicans of Minnesota want a strong state party. Donors, large and small, are engaged with the party and are confident in its new leadership.”
Downey’s focus on the basics is not just about financial realities. “That was very, very intentional, to show people that we are serious about managing our finances and controlling our operational costs and that we weren’t going to get distracted by things that don’t really add value to what the state party is providing,” he said. “I think we’ve now restored credibility and confidence within our activists and our donor community.”
Republican Party treasurer Bron Scherer, a CPA from Northfield, was tapped to fill that post shortly after Sutton resigned and it was revealed that then-treasurer David Sturrock had been intentionally kept in the dark on the party’s finances. Scherer said it’s been important to activists and donors that, going forward, the party’s books are open.
“You hear horror stories of mismanaged finances and people lose confidence, but we’ve been very open with our financial statements with the party faithful and party activists,” he said. “These business people are used to looking at numbers they can rely on.”
Scherer has also been working to restore the party’s relationship with its various vendors. During the final year of Sutton’s tenure, vendors were only being issued partial payments by the party or its compliance company, Cardinal FEC. Sturrock was kept in the dark about these payments. Now, Scherer says they’ve restructured their payment plan with vendors and have fixed administrative and financial reporting problems.
“That’s one of the main things that made this year easier, the fact that I don’t have any vendors calling me anymore,” he said. “So much is focused on the debt amount, but parties are always going to have debt.”
PCR reinstatement helping GOP
Part of the recent boost in the state GOP’s fundraising can also be attributed to the reinstatement of the Political Contribution Refund Program (PCR), which allows reimbursement by the state for political contributions of up to $50 for individuals and $100 for couples.
Republicans have always been good at taking advantage of the program. Despite successfully pushing to eliminate PCR in 2009, the GOP took in nearly $2 million from more than 27,000 contributors that year. DFL candidates and causes received $656,000 in small contributions from just over 11,000 donors who received refunds.
It appears the GOP didn’t waste any time when the program was reinstated on July 1 of this year. Of the $190,000 in contributions listed on July’s federal filing, $184,000 of the donations were unitemized, meaning they were for less than $200. In August, more than $192,000 of the $236,000 the GOP federal account took in consisted of unitemized contributions.
“Republicans obviously – myself included – voted to repeal the PCR many times, so it’s not as though we favor that, but if it’s there, we are certainly going to make our contributors aware of it,” Downey said. “It has led to increased contributions, so it has had a positive impact.”
Preparing for 2014
Downey took over for former Chair Pat Shortridge, who served out the remainder of Sutton’s term. Shortridge dealt with the brunt of the negative blowback in the wake of Sutton’s resignation and the subsequent debts that were discovered. At one point the party was even threatened with an eviction notice at its St. Paul headquarters for back rent payments.
By the time Downey took the helm, Shortridge had managed to stop the bleeding, activists say. But Republicans performed poorly in the 2012 election cycle, losing majorities in both the House and Senate and a congressional seat in northeastern Minnesota. Downey now has the difficult task of turning the party into a force in elections once again.
He thinks it’s possible, especially with about a dozen candidates currently seeking the Republican nomination to take on Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken next fall. Those candidacies have been increasing activity in the party, and Downey says the party will be able to support their endorsed candidate in a primary election.
To do that, the party has spent more than $300,000 on campaign activities, including voter identification calls, through Civis Communications this year, according to federal reports. Downey won’t say by how much they’ve boosted the state GOP’s voter rolls this year.
Downey is circumspect about predicting when the Republican Party will return to its full vigor. He says political parties on both sides will never be as powerful as they were before independent expenditure groups became the major players in elections. He should know better than most – he lost a race for an Edina Senate seat last fall that saw nearly $1 million in spending, most of it from outside political funds.
“The nature of politics here these days, the parties aren’t everything anymore,” Downey said. “Campaign finance changes have pushed so much activity outside the central party organization and even the candidates themselves and it’s really hard to try and artificially enforce some kind of tight control. The reality in that situation is you have to get better as a state party. You have to get stronger. You have to identify, recruit and endorse even stronger candidates, and you have to provide the support for them in on-the-ground campaign activities.”