To be a Minnesota Republican is to know misery similar to that felt by long-suffering Vikings football fans. The party sometimes nominates terrific candidates (I'm looking at you, Jim Schultz and Ryan Wilson) just as in some years the Vikings have a seemingly terrific team apparently headed for a Super Bowl victory. (Think 2018. I know, it's painful.)
And yet, year after year, for 16 years, Minnesota Republicans have endured Vikings-like defeat in statewide elections.
We've been losing for so long that some of my fellow Republicans have started to believe the system must be "rigged." But I believe it when the DFL says the Nov. 8 election produced the "most historic win in our party's 78-year history." Landmark achievements they were, including this: "For the first time in the 164-year history of Minnesota, the Minnesota DFL has won the Governor's office for a fourth consecutive term." Wow.
Following a painful loss, a smart team takes stock of how they played and what they need to do differently to win. It's time for the Minnesota GOP to face the ugly realities of why we lose statewide elections. Only then can we start to fix the problems and hopefully win once again.
A good place to start would be for our candidates to stop alienating suburban voters. The GOP saw once again this year that you cannot win statewide elections in Minnesota by carrying the vast majority of the state's 87 counties while getting slaughtered in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
How bad are things for the GOP in suburban Hennepin County? Take a look at the Third Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Dean Phillips. He won that seat in 2018 — a seat that had then been held by the GOP since 1960. As recently as 2014, then- Congressman Erik Paulsen, a Republican, won re-election by 24 points.
Since then, we've seen steady erosion in the Third District Republican vote. Some of that is due, no doubt, to redistricting. Fair enough. Yet what was just four elections ago a solid Republican district (+24) has since morphed into a district Phillips carried this month by 20 percentage points — a 44 percentage-point change!
Furthermore, the GOP loss in suburban Hennepin County isn't just confined to congressional elections. There are currently only three GOP members of the Hennepin County legislative delegation: two House members and one senator, all from the Maple Grove area.
What has caused this erosion — or landslide? Armchair politicos will try to blame it all on the Dobbs abortion decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year. But the loss of votes in the Third District goes deeper and wider than just the abortion issue. I believe the GOP has failed miserably to connect with suburban voters about this difficult issue, but also about many others. Our party has become so narrowly focused on a few key concerns that we've missed the proverbial elephant in the room. And that is the "vision thing."
The GOP doesn't have a vision and, most interestingly, some in our party don't believe we need one. We can, they believe, win elections by telling voters that our opponents "failed." But that only works if you follow up by telling those same voters what you would do differently and how your ideas would have a positive effect on their lives. That takes money and, more importantly, it takes an effective communicator. In 2022, the GOP had neither.
In the past two elections, many blamed Third District losses on "college-educated women" leaving the GOP, scared off by the harsh rhetoric and chaos surrounding former President Donald Trump. There is little doubt that Trump's tumultuous administration and caustic style cost Minnesota Republicans their majority in the state House in 2018. But Republicans have lost more than just women's votes in the Third District — a 44-point swing in eight years means the GOP has alienated both women and men.
A serious political party should delve into this problem and work nonstop on solutions in preparation for 2024. We cannot continue to blame others for our electoral failures while spouting off about kooky conspiracy theories regarding vote tabulations and alleged cheating.
Let's start by asking some really tough messaging questions: What is the Republican vision for the future? Even as a former two-time member of the Republican National Convention Platform Committee, two-time chair of the Minnesota Republican Party Platform Committee and former GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, I can't tell you what it is.
Too many of our candidates focus on the past instead of proposing a better future. Serious candidates don't talk about furries. Serious campaigns don't waste time airing personal grievances or condemning the process. Serious, winning campaigns focus on solutions to today's problems, not on yesterday's crazy "stop the steal" conspiracies.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Republican candidates are not victims, as so many of them recently have portrayed themselves. The system isn't corrupt; our opponents are not the enemy. Campaign messaging should avoid antagonizing millions of parents who have no choice but to send their children to a public school. If you think that our public schools are a "black hole" tell us what you're going to do to fix them.
Meanwhile, we need to fix the Republican Party of Minnesota's nominating process. Candidates matter, and no statewide GOP nominee has won in 16 years. We must abandon the antiquated precinct caucus system and replace it with a robust political party primary.
I witnessed what happens when a party nominates strong candidates and has a process that supports their election. Georgia did that 30 years ago. It transformed a once hopeless state for Republicans, with one GOP member of Congress (Newt Gingrich, for whom I once worked) into a Republican bulwark producing decades of victories.
Times change, and political parties must change, too. The Minnesota GOP still nominates candidates like it's 1952 rather than through modern election processes utilized in most states. More importantly, our state convention delegates have lost sight of what it takes to win a statewide election. The Minnesota GOP allows 2,000 delegates to select our statewide nominees rather than tapping the instincts of a substantially larger swath of primary voting Republicans.
Our existing nominating process virtually excludes younger voters, moms and dads with young children, those who work irregular hours and many others, by forcing them to choose between not participating and attending lots of political meetings often dominated by longtime party insiders who aren't interested in enlarging the party or considering change.
Winning for these party regulars means winning at the state convention — a hollow form of victory that brings us to where we are today, an all-DFL Minnesota government.
(However, while the DFL is crowing about their most recent victories, they would be wise to work across the aisle in the Legislature to enact an early political party preference primary in which thousands more Minnesotans could help select their respective party nominees in future years. While Minnesota GOP delegates have done a dismal job in selecting winning nominees, the DFL delegates' track record hasn't been much better. They failed to bestow party endorsement on both eventual governors Mark Dayton and Tim Walz, who won nomination over endorsed candidates in primaries.)
Minnesota Republicans could do the same thing Republicans did in Georgia and elsewhere. But we cannot do it if we remain the rudderless and grievance-filled party we are today. We need not abandon our conservative principles in order to nominate winning candidates. But the results of Nov. 8 tell us that this mission is urgent: The Minnesota GOP must fix our nominating process in time for the 2024 election. Otherwise, voters will continue to hand us disappointment and defeat. And we Minnesota Republicans will have no one to blame but ourselves.
Annette Meeks is former vice chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota and CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.