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Value of GOP endorsement to be tested

ROCHESTER — The Minnesota Republican Party’s process for endorsing candidates is at a tipping point.

The 2,200 delegates to the GOP state convention this weekend in Rochester must show they can endorse candidates for governor and U.S. senator who are capable of winning elections. If they don’t, future contenders likely will skip the cumbersome route of courting party activists and jump directly into primaries.

“This may be the year when the Republican endorsement process is given a burial,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

But first, the GOP delegates will decide two wide-open races with multiple candidates seeking endorsements for governor and U.S. senator. Then the value of the convention’s blessing will be tested.

For decades, the state Republican Party made its endorsements for top offices stick. It routinely steamrolled primary challengers to its party-backed candidates. Rank-and-file Republicans were loyal to their brand.

But after the party endorsed losing candidates in the past two statewide elections, more U.S. Senate and governor wannabes this year are focusing on the Aug. 12 Republican primary and don’t think an endorsement is critical to their bids to unseat Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken in November.

Only two of the five leading Republican contenders for governor, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Sen. Dave Thompson, have pledged not to run in the primary if the convention endorses someone else.

A third candidate, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, has left open the option of running in the primary if he is not endorsed. He said last week he probably would decide whether to honor the endorsement on the eve of the two-day convention, which opens at 10 a.m. Friday at the Mayo Civic Center.

Two other leading GOP gubernatorial contenders, businessman Scott Honour and state Rep. Kurt Zellers, the former House speaker, have indicated since the day they announced that they would run in the primary if not endorsed.

Hibbing special education teacher Rob Farnsworth also is seeking the party’s endorsement for governor.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Sen. Julianne Ortman and St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg have agreed to abide by the party’s endorsement.

Businessman Mike McFadden, a wealthy first-time candidate, said he’ll run in the primary if he isn’t endorsed, and state Rep. Jim Abeler has said he’s “more likely than not” to enter the primary if the convention endorses another candidate.

The value of the party’s endorsement shrank for two reasons. In 2012, supporters of libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul took over the state convention and endorsed Paul enthusiast Kurt Bills for U.S. senator.

When Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar trounced him, many old-guard, establishment Republicans decided their party had been taken over by a group more committed to ideological purity than winning elections. So they decided to look for more mainstream candidates who could win without the party apparatus.

They encouraged Honour and McFadden, millionaires with little political experience, to run.

At the same time, the state GOP was nearly $2 million in debt and threatened with eviction from its St. Paul headquarters. It didn’t appear the party would have much money to spend on its endorsed candidates this year.

But the party is regaining strength under the leadership of former state Rep. Keith Downey, a retired management consultant who was elected state chairman last year. He has whittled down the debt to just over $1 million and restructured debt repayments “so the vast majority of the contributions coming in will be spent on our operations and campaigns,” he said last week.

“We’ll be able to fund all the on-the-ground operations people have come to expect from the state party.”

The three gubernatorial candidates working hardest to win the endorsement said they sense a new, more pragmatic attitude among this year’s state convention delegates.

“If we hear anything from Republican delegates right now that is an over-arching theme, it is they want to win,” Seifert said.

The gubernatorial endorsement contest on Saturday is shaping up as a very competitive, three-way battle among Seifert, Johnson and Thompson, the campaigns and several party activists said.

Their stands on issues and voting records are similar. “We’re all mainstream conservatives,” Johnson said.

Each is telling delegates he is the best equipped candidate to beat Dayton in November.

Dayton led all his Republican challengers by double digits in a recent Suffolk University poll, and by the end of March he had more cash in his campaign treasury, $733,000, than the five leading GOP candidates combined.

But in that same poll, only 46 percent of Minnesota voters ranked Dayton’s job performance favorably — a sign of potential weakness — and Republicans think he’s vulnerable to sharply increasing state taxes and spending, foisting an unpopular MNsure health insurance exchange on state employers and consumers, and approving a new $77 million state Senate office building they contend exemplifies wasteful government spending.

The leading Republican candidates say the endorsement is important for three reasons:

n It’s still the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for thousands of likely Republican primary voters.

n Under Downey, the party will be able to provide the voter lists, technology, phone banks and get-out-the-vote operations that will give the endorsed candidate a boost in a primary.

n Many of the thousands of grassroots activists who turned out for caucuses and conventions will volunteer for the endorsee’s campaign.

“We’re a lot stronger than we were a year or year-and-a-half ago,” Downey said.

In the U.S. Senate race, four main contenders are vying for the Republican endorsement to take on first-term incumbent Democrat Franken. The convention is scheduled to endorse in that race Friday.