Fresh controversy has erupted in the ongoing endorsement contest in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District (CD2) between incumbent Congressman John Kline and challenger David Gerson. Marianne Stebbins, campaign chair for Gerson, took to social media over the weekend to lament a recent decision by the MNGOP state executive committee which retains Kline’s access to DataCenter, the party’s database of caucus attendees, convention delegates, and other identified voters. That access shall remain in spite of Kline’s refusal to sign an agreement for list use drafted by the CD2 full committee. Kline will retain DataCenter access even if he fails to secure endorsement later this year. Kline would then be able to campaign against the endorsed Republican candidate through the primary with the benefit of party resources. The Kline campaign did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
This development advances an ongoing debate among party officers and activists regarding practices which have not previously been guided by clear written policy. The focus of contention is the use of MNGOP resources. “The Great T-Shirt Rebellion of 2013” occurred when Gerson campaigners Matt Erickson and Paul and Marie Tuschy arrived for volunteer shifts at the MNGOP booth wearing Gerson for Congress t-shirts. State party chair Keith Downey asked them to turn their shirts inside-out while donning vests identifying them as representatives of the party. The incident provoked debate regarding the nature of the party’s endorsement. Does endorsement apply only until Election Day, or continue through a victor’s term? Should challengers to the party’s incumbents have access to party resources?
The lack of clear written policy leaves any answer to those questions a matter of opinion. Downey’s opinion, derived from his actions, sustained the benefits of endorsement through an incumbent’s term until the convening of caucuses. According to CD2 chair Bill Jungbauer, Downey has said “Campaign season begins caucus night.”
That episode revolved around an endorsement challenger’s access to party resources. Now the spotlight falls upon incumbent access.
In late September of last year, in response to a request from the Gerson campaign for access to the caucus attendee and delegate lists from previous cycles, the CD2 full committee crafted a list use agreement which among other things imposed a $10,000 fine if a signatory campaign did not abide by the party’s endorsement. Gerson signed that agreement and promptly received available lists.
In October, Jungbauer attended a meeting of the MNGOP state executive committee where he resolved to restrict list access to only those candidates for CD2 endorsement who signed the list agreement. Jungbauer later reported to the CD2 executive committee, “I asked Chairman Downey in front of the state exec committee to give me his word that he would refer back to CD2 any candidate for Congress that requested list access. He said, ‘You have my word.’”
Skip to December. Congressman Kline showed up unannounced to a meeting of the CD2 full committee and was confronted by questions from Senate District 54 Republican chair Chad Rediske. Kline confirmed he was seeking reelection and the party’s endorsement. Rediske then asked, “Will you sign the CD2 list agreement to receive the list of 2014 caucus attendees?”
Kline asked for clarification, was provided the details of the agreement, then replied, “No I would absolutely not sign that. Look, if you are running for Congress you should get the list. That’s how it’s done. David Gerson should get the list. If [former Senate District 58 chair] Pat Kaluza here decides to run for Congress he should get the list. Look, we’re running a multi-million dollar operation here. You talk about $10,000.00. I guess that’s a lot of money to some people. David Gerson had $2000.00 on his last report. We’re gonna spend a lot more than that to win this thing.”
After Kline’s departure from the meeting, Jungbauer confirmed to the CD2 full committee that Kline’s refusal to sign the list agreement would leave him ineligible to access the 2014 caucus list. “Kline will not be given the lists unless he signs our agreement, period,” Jungbauer declared. “Chairman Downey gave me his word – publicly – that if Kline asks for the lists he will refer him to CD2. CD2 has the right to decide who gets our lists.”
Following through on that conviction, the CD2 executive committee held a conference call last Wednesday where they unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to revoke the Kline campaign’s access to DataCenter effective on caucus night, February 4th. That resolution seemed in keeping with Downey’s previously stated opinion that the party’s campaign season begins on caucus night. On Thursday, Jungbauer delivered that motion to the state executive committee. His was the only aye vote. The state committee opted to leave Kline’s access to DataCenter intact, effectively rendering the CD2 list agreement moot in the event Gerson secures endorsement.
Jungbauer then moved that David Gerson be granted access to DataCenter. That motion also failed.
A jurisdictional conflict exists which made this development possible. Local districts theoretically control their lists. However, they also share their lists with the state party which retains jurisdiction over DataCenter. Because the state party grants DataCenter access to incumbents, those Republicans holding office need not meet local requirements for list access. Downey described it to Jungbauer as “a backdoor” which enables incumbents to benefit from the party’s caucus and delegate lists without seeking consent from their district committees.
Jungbauer played an unwitting role in codifying that policy. At a November meeting of the state executive committee, Jungbauer moved the adoption of rules governing access to the MNGOP database. Those rules allowed the party’s incumbents to retain access throughout the duration of their term. “If I had known the consequences, I would have fought it tooth and nail,” he told Fightin Words.
A question for Republican activists electing delegates and officers this year is whether local districts ought to retain ultimate control over party resources, or whether the state party’s incumbent “backdoor” should remain open. Speaking to Fightin Words, Downey provided context relevant to that discussion.
One of Downey’s priorities as chair of the MNGOP has been codifying into formal policy practices and traditions which have previously been taken for granted. The vote taken on DataCenter access policy during November’s state executive committee meeting was one such effort. Historically, incumbent office holders have always retained access to the party’s database. Downey recalls that he found himself in a position similar to Gerson’s when he successfully challenged incumbent state representative Ron Erhardt for endorsement. Challengers have always faced an uphill battle when it comes to campaign resources.
Of course, tradition alone does not constitute an argument, and Downey remains open to proposals for change. He believes the reason the state executive committee rejected the motions brought by Jungbauer last week was because they created exclusions which would apply only to Kline and Gerson respectively, and not to any other candidates.
Downey emphasized another point. Frankly, the DataCenter database presents little value to the Kline campaign. Six terms in office have provided the incumbent with plenty of opportunities to cultivate an internal database which likely exceeds the quality of that maintained by the party.
As is so often the case in these controversies, the pivot point emerges at the intersection of principle and pragmatism. If party activists take exception to incumbent office holders retaining access to DataCenter in spite of local district wishes, they may lobby the state executive committee to alter existing policy or seek amendment to the party constitution by passing resolutions at the February 4th caucuses. However, even if the policy changes, it may not make a significant difference in electoral outcomes, certainly not as much as fundraising and the other fundamentals of campaigning.