Their party faces a $1.3 million debt, ideological differences and lingering questions about a sex scandal, and Republicans leaving their state convention Saturday both acknowledged the problems and kept their chins up.
“We don’t really have a lot of unity within the party,” convention delegate Ken Zylstra of Worthington said.
“They would just as soon shoot each other down,” the long-time Republican and first-time convention delegate said of the party’s factions.
On the other hand, freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack said once the convention ended, things would be different.
“We’re like a big family, sometimes we have our squabbles,” Cravaack said. “But when we walk out that door, nobody messes with us.”
More than 2,100 GOP delegates met at St. Cloud’s River’s Edge Convention Center two days, picking first-year state Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount as their U.S. Senate candidate on Friday. On Saturday, they voted for a mostly Ron Paul delegation to the national party convention.
In a convention obviously split between presidential candidate Paul supporters and traditional Republicans, a party leader told delegates they need to get along.
Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson, a Detroit Lakes native and former state lawmaker, called tension in the convention “the elephant in the room.”
“You know, it is not new, it is OK,” he said of the tension. “It’s not new, but it is real.”
Johnson told Paul supporters, known for their libertarian bent, that they must realize that traditional Republicans “have been sitting in your seats for 20 years and are not here.”
A third to half of the delegates are Paul supporters, many new to the Republican Party process.
“The chatter is” that Paul backers do not care about the party, Johnson said, and would not support GOP candidates.
“Make sure that doesn’t happen,” Johnson advised. “If we are all part of the Republican Party, then we all need to vote for Republicans.”
To “Ron Paul haters,” Johnson said, “my advice to you is: Get over it.”
“There is no such thing as standing still … if we don’t grow, we die as a party,” Johnson said.
Delegate David Sturrock of Marshall, a political science professor, said political parties always are changing: “Yesterday’s revolutionaries are today’s establishment.”
Those who looked at history remained optimistic about their candidates’ chances in the Nov. 6 election.
“It’s nothing compared to the Watergate era,” said Rep. Morrie Lanning of Moorhead, chairman of the Clay County Republicans at that time.
Sitting with Lanning was another Clay County delegate, Kate Engstrom, president of Concordia College Republicans.
“You have to take things slow,” she said. “You can’t panic.”
Still, she added, “it doesn’t look bright.”
Lanning, a former Concordia official, said today’s party problem does do not compare to the 1970s.
The state Republican Party’s fiscal problem was discussed in convention sessions, with delegates hearing it was serious, but improving.
The financial report showed the party $1.3 million in debt, in a large part because of spending by former state Chairman Tony Sutton during the 2010 campaign.
“If this had been a regular business, we should have filed for bankruptcy,” party Secretary-Treasurer Bron Scherer told delegates.
The good news is, he added, that the party has a $55,000 balance, $80,000 than in December when there was a deficit.
“We are paying our bills diligently,” Scherer said.
Delegates approved several party changes to improve financial oversight, including requiring a professional treasurer.
Sturrock resigned as party secretary-treasurer when the financial news broke, saying he did not know about financial moves taken by Sutton. He was a delegate to the state convention and praised new party Chairman Pat Shortridge and others for openly dealing with the financial issue.
“Part of the challenge from the get-go was to be honest, to be transparent and to rebuild,” he said, adding that is happening.
House Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood said he has not seen a problem getting donations for legislative races since news broke late last year of the financial problems.
Minnesotans are more interested in volunteering and donating when they hear the straight story, Dean said.
As the focus increased on fixing the money problems, Dean said donors who had been on the sidelines now are contributing again.
Another party problem, a state Senate sex scandal, shows no indication that it will influence elections, Sturrock said. It received little attention in St. Cloud.
With financial woes, a scandal and troubles piling up, St. Louis County delegate John Frydenlund laughed: “We have no problems.”
Turning serious, he said he thinks GOP leaders will turn things around. “Obviously, we need to straighten it out.”
Despite his complaints about Republican-on-Republican fighting, even Zylstra was not down in the dumps. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t optimistic.”