Warning shot

So unless the Zombie-pocalypse occurs before next August, it seems increasingly likely that the MN GOP will have a serious contested primary for a statewide office, perhaps even two.  With three candidates in the gubernatorial race not pledging to abide by the endorsement, and at least one in the Senate race, we seem to be heading for a first in the history of the party.

Enjoy it while you can, because it will also be the last time this happens in the MN Republican Party.

The primary vs caucus debates have been percolating since 2012, when there were two big twists in the GOP US Senate race.  First, a major candidate had about the only valid reason for going to a primary that could be imagined; Pete Hegseth was in Afghanistan as the year 2012 began, meaning he was far behind on organizing for caucuses and turning out potential delegates.  Nevertheless, Pete made the smart choice and agreed to abide by the endorsement, realizing the importance of the activists support.  Second, the guy that did win the endorsement, Kurt Bills, had such a lackluster campaign that an anti-Liberty Wing candidate was able to make a serious run at the primary.  David Carlson pulled 35% in the primary, with Bills barely topping 50%.  Bills won, but it was a narrow enough victory that primary advocates started dreaming about what might be.

Now in 2013, we have Senate and governor candidates openly talking about the advantages of trying for the endorsement but clearly intending to go to a primary.  Republicans across the state have greeted this news with puzzled politeness, the epitome of Minnesota Nice.  But make no mistake, primary lovers, below the smiles is a hard line-go to the primary at your own peril.

The debate over primary vs caucus system is a lengthy and complicated one, with good points to be made on each side of the discussion.  I’ll save that for a later post.  But there is one irrefutable fact-by law, Minnesota is a caucus state.  Until the legislature changes that, trying to run a campaign like we are a primary state is a waste of resources.

So any candidate who bucks the endorsement system by running next summer against the endorsed candidate is running on borrowed time.  The state party (and the CD’s, and even down to the BPOU level) will be spending money to support the endorsed candidate, and to defend against all others.  In theory, an un-endorsed candidate could run a campaign completely focused on beating the incumbent, but in reality they will have to also run against the endorsed candidate.  The endorsed candidates will have to separate the money they raise into pre-primary and general election pots, to be spent only on one or the other.  The Democrats can take advantage of any mistakes or poorly chosen comments and apply them to all of the Republicans running.

In short, there is no scenario in which Republicans mounting a serious run in the primary doesn’t waste tens of thousands of dollars, or more, at a time when Republicans will be running against the personal wealth of Governor (Rockefeller) Dayton and Senator Al (Hollywood war-chest) Franken.

Some activists have already asked what the party policy should be towards candidates who wont abide by the endorsement.  In the planning phase of last month’s Gubernatorial Debate in Owatonna, it was seriously suggested that only candidates pledging to abide be allowed to participate.  Some BPOU’s in outstate Minnesota, my own included, have informal policies that give preference to candidates who will abide.  In CD1, not pledging to abide by the endorsement was such a problem for Rep Mike Benson that he reversed course and agreed to abide, putting his campaign back on track with the activists.

But punishing a candidate who wont abide now, during the current election cycle, runs the risk of being counter-productive.  Refusing to allow candidates to participate would become a liability if that candidate goes on to win the primary.  Also, the MNGOP isn’t in the same situation as the DFL was in 2010.  Then candidate Dayton shunned the delegates completely, not even daring to compete for the endorsement.  The Republican candidates for Senate and governor are all still trying to persuade the delegates to endorse them, even if they wont promise to abide by that endorsement.  For that reason alone, all of the candidates still deserve equal access.

But the real principled reason to not punish those refusing to abide by the endorsement during this election cycle is because it would violate conservative values.  We are the party that dreams big, the party that applauds entrepreneurs who risk everything to follow their dream.  When you boil it down, that is what Zellers, Honour and Siefert are doing- rolling the dice and hoping for snake eyes.

But there will be a reckoning for those who dream big and fail, there always is.  Those who mount a primary challenge and don’t win will find little sympathy inside the party or across the state’s conservative activists.  Marty Siefert called activists across the state earlier this year to gauge the interest in him running again, and by and large those activists were happy to discuss the topic.  If Marty had run in a primary in 2010 and lost, he would have found a lot of calls going straight to voice mail.  If Kurt Zellers runs in the 2014 primary and loses, he would likely have eliminated any chance of a leadership position in the House.

But more than just informal cold shoulders, the party can (and I think will) move to codify the costs of bucking the endorsement system into the party constitution or by-laws.  There are a wide range of benefits that the party can decide to revoke.  Lost the primary?  Sorry, you forfeit any chance to speak at a state party convention or central committee meeting.  No respect for the endorsement process?  Guess we wont be giving you access to delegate/alternate lists next cycle.  Or, maybe you lose access to the all of the party’s voter ID resources.

Lest anyone think that such measures would never be passed by the GOP activists, take a glance at Article 5, Section 3, Paragraph D of the MNGOP constitution;

If a primary election for any Minnesota statewide office or for United States Senator results in the selection of a nominee other than the Republican-endorsed candidate, a meeting of the State Central Committee shall be called by the State Party Chair or by the State Executive Committee within five (5) days after the certification of the primary election results by the State Canvassing Board. The purpose of this meeting shall be to consider a post primary endorsement of the nominee(s) winning the primary election.

That means that if a non-endorsed candidate wins the primary, a state central meeting has to be called within days, upsetting the schedules of several hundred conservative activists across the state.  They mood of the meeting would be primed for rule changes to avoid the same situation in the future.

The party can’t and in reality shouldn’t stop people from running in primary elections.  But the party doesn’t owe anything to candidates who decide to make their own luck.  Dream big, but be ready to pay the piper if you lose.


Comments welcome at Foreign and Domestic.