MN GOP chair: "Hatch gave us a gift"

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Ron Carey may have been suffering more than most on election night, but if he was he never showed it. Carey, who succeeded Ron Eibensteiner as the chair of the Minnesota GOP a year and a half ago, managed to put on a brave face for most of the night at the Republican campaign party at the Sheraton in Bloomington, and in the end, he was rewarded.


By 3 a.m., Tim Pawlenty was giving a victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat speech, keeping the night from being a total blank on state offices for the Republicans. Carey, who is 48 and lives in Ham Lake with his wife and two children, says that long nights are the future of elections here in Minnesota. "I think a state that's so split like Minnesota is now," Carey says, "the days of having these mailed in by 10 o'clock are long gone." City Pages caught up with Carey by phone three days after the election.

City Pages: What do you think was the key issue for so many Democratic gains?

Ron Carey: The whole thing came down to the word they were using, "change." There's probably a number of reasons that facilitated the drive for change. Obviously lack of approval for the President's general policies. The Congress had lower approval ratings than the president. The reason for that, as Republicans, is the perceived failure for us to keep spending in check. And also some of the ethical issues that came up did take their toll.

CP: Like Foley?

RC: Well, you've got Foley, you've got Abramoff, you've got DeLay. Whether they're all valid--I think Democrats have had their fair share of scandals now or in the past. But I think now, because Republicans are in charge, those scandals were highlighted more. I guess that's one of the joys of being in charge--any misstep you or your party makes is amplified many times over.

CP: Could it also be that people feel deceived by this administration with regard to Iraq?

RC: I don't think necessarily deception is the factor. It's whether Americans have the stomach to fight a war and see American bloodshed halfway across the world. And maybe there's a lack of understanding the mission, and that's maybe a failure of the Republicans, they haven't done a good job of framing what's at stake and why we are in Iraq.

CP: No, I think that people do understand why we are in Iraq, but they feel like the reasons aren't ...

RC: It's possible they feel the up side is not worth the down side. And that is legitimate public debate.

CP: But that is issue number one of the day regarding the election.

RC: It's the issue that motivated Democrats the most, motivated them to come out. If you talk to a Republican-oriented crowd, they'd probably go back to spending. There was all sorts of grumbling in the Republican ranks about Congress and that we were spending too much money. The war motivated the left, and the right was probably de-motivated by what they saw as fiscal irresponsibility by our own party in Washington.

CP: That's certainly what I heard from Republicans on election night. It seems to me, the last couple of elections, there's been talk of the values voters and the evangelical base and so forth for the GOP. But to me, it seems you've alienated the fiscal conservatives now, and that's your real base.

RC: I think the evangelical Christian base, the numbers were pretty similar to the last elections, and they voted Republican, so I don't think that's necessarily our problem. There's discontent, obviously, in that group. But what I heard more often than not was that Republicans were upset with the fiscal policies of Republicans in congress.

CP: And that's what I'm getting at. Those are your real bread-and-butter voters, the ones who don't care about these social issues, and they were perhaps registering a protest vote.

RC: Perhaps. That's a conclusion you could certainly draw. So we had a de-motivated base and there was a highly motivated Democrat base, and that's a recipe for what happened Tuesday night.

CP: There seems to be a fissure or turmoil within the party. What do you think reflecting and maybe rebuilding for the local GOP will look like?

RC: There's two paths to go down. We can go down toward the accommodation of Democrats and their liberal positions, or we can go back to standing firm on our core policies of fiscal responsibility and family values.

Those are the two things that Michele Bachmann campaigned on, and she exceeded everyone's expectations. To win by such a convincing margin--she won by as much as Mark Kennedy did in 2004 in a much more [Democrat-]friendly year. And I think that sends a message that she stood firm with the President and firm on her support of the war and fiscal responsibility and family issues. And people saw that and they respected that she was not afraid to stand for what she believed was right. And I'd like to see more of that from the Republican party...

CP: But wait. Part of the thing with Bachmann was that she had been so polarizing going into this campaign, and quite honestly, what she did so smartly was downplay where she is on those social issues and stick on-message with taxes.

RC: Her position on family issues were well-known, she didn't need to educate people on that...

CP: Well, she certainly didn't re-educate anybody either.

RC: What people didn't realize that she's also conservative on fiscal issues, and that's where she had to educate people. She had to show that she was a well-rounded Republican conservative, whether you were a fiscal conservative, a social conservative or both, she was a fit for your vote or viewpoint.

CP: Back to the original question. Is it safe to say there's a split within the part on exactly this now?

RC: It depends on how you define the party. I think within the party activists, which is the world I live in, I think we're pretty much in agreement that we need to stay focused on our base conservative issues, and this is an opportunity now to highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans. If we clearly articulate our differences, like Michele Bachmann, we're going to win more often than not. I think it's more of a back-to-basics...

CP: It's the fiscal conservative piece that seems to be the big issue as far as regrouping here. What can you do? You can't rein in Washington from here on this budget stuff.

RC: Well, we'll see the tone coming out of Washington from Republicans as a minority if they're going to rediscover the conservative religion, so to speak, that has been lost. I think what we say in this election is that Republicans have become the people that Republicans ran against in 1994. What happened to the Democrats happened to us this year.

CP: You mean sort of playing to not lose?

RC: Well, no, I think we became too comfortable with being in power and the core philosophy that got us there was forgotten. We were not the conservative reformers that Newt Gingrich and company ran on in 1994. We've become part of the establishment and the institution that many thought was too bureaucratic and too fat, I guess, shall we say.

CP: But you took it on the chin statewide too.

RC: What we found is that with a week left, our internal polling on the constitutional races, the down-ballot constitutional races, almost 25 percent of Minnesotans were undecided. And those races, there's not a lot of resources to wage a broad-based campaign, so, with the 25 percent didn't know a lot about the candidates. In an anti-Republican year, they broke heavily for Democrats.

It's unfortunate, but in a case like that, we have to put all of our resources into protecting the governor's seat, and that's what we had to do. Unfortunately. It wasn't about Mary Kiffmeyer or Pat Anderson or Jeff Johnson.

CP: But isn't what we're seeing here a "market correction" if you will? Isn't Minnesota really a blue state after all?

RC: This is a state, as the governor said yesterday, that probably leans slightly Democrat by 5 to 10 percent. But it ebbs and flows. Back in 2002, when he was elected, Republicans were...

CP: Peaking for the first time since 50 years earlier probably...

RC: One thing the governor said that I agree with, actually, is that you can't discount the fact that compared to 20 years ago, this state is far more Republican. We may have hit a high water mark in 2002, and there may have been, as you say, a market correction this year. But I'm very convinced that we'll make gains in 2008.

Demographically, it's hard to make a case that there should only be 49 Republicans in the state house. I was saying the same thing in 2003, when Republicans had 81 seats, this is not a real world, we can't expect to have all these seats. We're renting the seats from the Democrats, and right now the Democrats are renting some seats from us.

CP: What effect, if any, do you think Peter Hutchinson had on the race?

RC: Not as much as previous IP candidates have had. He certainly never seemed to take off. R.T. Rybak, I think it was, indicated that true Democrats don't really like Mike Hatch, and that's what we had been saying. The Democrats were so hungry for a victory that they were going to overlook his shortcomings and unite.

CP: But he probably pulled more votes from Hatch than Pawlenty, don't you think?

RC: Some of the polling suggests that. But I know there were plenty of Republicans that voted for Hutchinson too. Whether it was the margin of difference, I don't know.

CP: Well then, what do you think was the key to Pawlenty's comeback-kid victory over Hatch?

RC: Until the negative ads started, the governor's popularity, his approval rating, in mid-September, he was sitting at 58-59 percent approval.

CP: But he was behind in the polls.

RC: Well, not at that point in time. The negative ads started about that time, and that's when Hatch's numbers started to come up, and that's when Pawlenty's negative numbers started to climb. The governor had been holding a slight lead at points previous. He was still polling underneath his approval rating, which is an interesting phenomenon.

CP: But as it was, he was coming from a hole.

RC: He was certainly running behind in October in polling. Not by a lot--I think the mainstream media exaggerated the deficit. We were doing some very specific polling, he was behind, but by a very slim margin.

CP: Really? What kind of margins?

RC: We were showing a probably a 2 to 4 percent Hatch lead the last few weeks. A week out from the election, we saw momentum building that kind of carried through on election day. We were just chipping away, chipping away. We put a full-court press as a party on our advertising. We heavied up on our opposition ads against Mike Hatch.

Then he gave us a gift with the outburst he had. Because for two to three weeks we had made the case that Mike Hatch was unfit to be governor because he had a volatile temperament and was somebody Minnesota couldn't trust. And he played right into it. And I think his gaffe probably resonated more with more voters and more deeply because we had kind of laid the groundwork where people had this idea, but maybe hadn't seen it.

But then they did see it, it took faster and deeper because he had been softened up in our advertising campaign. It worked.


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