As the smoke clears from hotly contested endorsement battles in Rochester, here are 5 takeaways from the 2014 Republican Party of Minnesota state convention.
The Endorsement Still Matters
Besides ideology, there may be no more contentious issue plaguing Republican politicos than that of the endorsement and its value. Following two straight election cycles in which the entire slate of endorsed statewide candidates failed to get elected in November, the Minnesota Republican tradition of abiding by the party’s endorsement came under heavy criticism. Debate centered around two ideas, taking legislative action to move the primary up from August to June, and running candidates to the primary whether they earn endorsement or not.
The latter notion proved influential this year as four out of the six declared Republican candidates for governor chose not to abide by the endorsement. In the race for U.S. Senate, Mike McFadden made clear his intention to run to a primary.
In spite of such large scale defiance of tradition, we received two strong indications over the weekend that the party’s endorsement still matters. First, McFadden aggressively sought the endorsement. He could not have earned it otherwise. His ascension ballot over ballot was plodding and incremental. Delegates had to be convinced, and their conversion to took methodical work on the floor.
The second indication that the endorsement still very much matters was Marty Seifert’s stunning and dastardly move to prevent the convention from endorsing at all. We’ll delve into that in more detail below. Suffice it to say that Seifert would not have burned so many bridges to prevent an endorsement if he did not perceive that it retains significant value.
Money and Influence Still Matter Too
Ultimately, even though it took ten ballots and half a day more than planned, McFadden earned the endorsement of Republican delegates. He did this in spite of being vilified for months by ideological critics as “the establishment candidate,” a “flip-flopper,” and a “moderate” among less flattering terms. From the convention floor, I saw a steady increase in McFadden campaign paraphernalia, worn and waved by many unlikely supporters – tea partiers, liberty activists, and movement conservatives.
What could account for this surge of support for McFadden? A fair bet would be that delegates grew ever more practical as the convention dragged on. McFadden’s second address to delegates, offered after the fifth ballot late Friday night, was a straightforward pitch focused on the bottom line. “Endorse me and I’ll have $2 million in this race on Monday,” he told the delegation. No other candidate seeking the Republican endorsement could boast anything close to McFadden’s resources or operation.
There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Defy the Endorsement
Regardless of whether you think candidates ought to abide by the endorsement, they retain the right to run to a primary. How they do so remains an indicator of character.
Mike McFadden sought the endorsement, and earned it, even while telling delegates upfront that he would run to a primary. Gubernatorial candidates Scott Honour and Kurt Zellers didn’t even bother to place their names into nomination. Their intentions to run to a primary were clear.
Then there’s Marty Seifert.
The third ballot for gubernatorial endorsement painted a clear picture of the direction things were going. Jeff Johnson held a significant lead over both Dave Thompson and Seifert, who were virtually tied. Thompson rose to address the convention and withdrew his name from nomination after endorsing Johnson and urging others to abide. Then Seifert takes the stage, leaving the hall in suspense.
Has he changed his mind? Is he going to toss his support behind Johnson and abide? Are we about to see the same class act we got from him in 2010 when he conceded to Tom Emmer?
No, no, and absolutely not.
Seifert gets up there and delivers the most bizarre, illogical, two-faced address I have beheld in six years of Republican activism. He tells the crowd that he respects the grassroots, then proceeds to define the grassroots as everyone who isn’t there – caucus straw poll voters, delegates who bailed on the convention, and primary voters who he must think he can buy.
Okay, fine. Seifert’s going to run to a primary. That’s his prerogative.
Then comes the curveball. He doesn’t actually withdraw. Instead, with an aristocratic wave of his wrist he “dismisses” his delegates, instructs them to leave, dismounts the dais, and leaves the hall. Delegates and conveners alike flounder in confusion until a realization dawns. Seifert has declared war on the process itself, attempting to deprive the convention of its quorum and thus block endorsement. Republican Liberty Caucus chair Neil Lynch summed it up in a tweet evoking South Park’s Eric Cartman, “Screw you guys. I’m going home.”
It’s one thing to run to a primary against the party’s endorsed candidate. No one has to like it. But at least it’s straightforward.
It’s quite another thing to misrepresent your intentions to party leadership, convention organizers, and the delegation itself in a bald attempt to undermine the endorsement process. By doing the latter, Seifert has successfully rallied the party against not only his primary run, but himself as a person.
Chairman Downey Was the Right Choice to Lead the State Party
Wright County delegate Adam Motzko stated it well. “They say that character is best shown when no one is looking, but it can also be shown in the spotlight…”
Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey stepped into the spotlight following Seifert’s underhanded move, apologizing to the delegation and calling the scheme “uncalled for.” Downey was joined in his indignation by convention co-chairs Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and State Senator Michelle Fischbach, along with head teller State Senator David Osmek, each of whom appeared visibly irate regarding Seifert’s foul move.
The conscientious response of party leadership, ensuring that delegates were informed of how they had just been manipulated, demonstrates that Downey and company have the grassroots’ interests at heart.
We Can Win in November!
Jeff Johnson and Mike McFadden might be the perfect storm for the top of the ticket. Johnson will bring out the activist base. McFadden will bring in the money. The party under Downey’s leadership will be better positioned than in recent cycles to defend the endorsement and turn out the vote. Candidates down ticket will benefit. We have a real shot at taking the constitutional offices, defeating Mark Dayton and Al Franken, and taking back the State House. Let’s get after it.