‘Behind The Eight Ball’: Terrible Times For The Minnesota Republican Party

The Minnesota Republican Party is having a hard time.

This week, the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the FEC that alleges the party and its now-former chairman, Tony Sutton, violated the Federal Election Campaign Act.“The Republican Party of Minnesota’s FEC reports haven’t reflected the party’s actual financial condition for nearly a decade and make a mockery of the public’s right to know,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. “There appears to be ample evidence Mr. Sutton repeatedly lied to FEC investigators for years to achieve the party’s political goals.”

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge released the following statement after the CREW complaint:

“As part of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s internal review of party finances, which we reported to the State Central Committee and released to the media on December 31, we discovered additional party debt. Following on that disclosure, we contacted the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to self report that debt and seek guidance on how we should proceed. We are in the process of following those recommendations.”

In short: the Minnesota Republican party is in shambles. Not only is it in financial disarray — it is $2 million in debt and Sutton resigned in early December under the sea of red ink — its Republican Senate leader, Amy Koch, recently resigned her leadership post after news broke that she had an “inappropriate relationship” with a subordinate staffer.

“They’re not in a good position going into the 2012 election,” David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, told TPM. But now they’re “on the defensive where they can’t get their message or narrative out.”

So how did the party get to this point? Republicans for the first time in 40 years took control of the state House and Senate after 2010’s midterm elections. At the time, House Majority Leader Kurt Zellers said the legislature would focus on the economy and jobs — issues that remain central to this year’s election cycle. But quite simply, Schultz said, the party “overplayed its hand.” There are two things Minnesota voters will remember from the legislative session: Republicans pushed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and the state’s government shut down for more than two weeks. With public polls suggesting that most Minnesotans blame Republicans for that shut down, the party is badly bruised going into 2012.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said the party should be gearing up for a tough battle to retain its legislative majority and raising money, but instead it’s dealing with “housekeeping” issues. Jacobs said it’s too early to tell if the party will lose its majority in 2012.

“They’re behind the eight ball,” he told TPM.

A big chunk of the party’s debt — more than $700,000, according to the Star Tribune — is legal fees from the state’s 2010 gubernatorial recount. Democrat Mark Dayton eventually took the governor’s mansion. Now there is some disagreement within the party whether Sutton had the authority to approve such spending, for the recount or otherwise, Schultz said. “I think the Republican party is still metaphorically scratching its head,” he said. “How they got into this situation, it’s not completely clear.” A formal, third party audit of the party’s finances is likely the next step, Schultz said, in order to get to the bottom of the spending and work to restore public trust.

The position Minnesota Republicans are in reflects the state of the Republican party at large, an example of a party overplaying its hand, Schultz said. “As the Minnesota Republicans go, so goes the national Republican party,” he said.