Rightward shift challenges Mitt Romney

Published 10:47 am Monday, February 6, 2012

ST. PAUL — Minnesota once took pride in progressive reform and political consensus.

Then last summer warring leaders shut down state government during a fierce political struggle in the Capitol. Vitriol commonly erupts during otherwise routine political discussions, and people are arguing over whether to ban gay marriage.

So much for the state’s modern political heritage.

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Minnesota Republicans are now “among the most conservative party activists in the country,” said Chuck Slocum, who led the Minnesota Republican Party in the mid-1970s.

And that could pose problems for front-runner Romney, fresh off a commanding win in Nevada and eager to extend his winning streak. Candidates considered more conservative — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — are working to impede the former Massachusetts governor’s march to the nomination. For now, even the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, long considered a gadfly, could be a player in the Minnesota caucuses.

Without recent reliable polls, gauging just where the race stands is tough.

Romney won here in 2008, and his financial edge is supplemented by a strong campaign organization. But the motivated and increasingly powerful conservative activists offer encouragement to Gingrich and Santorum, who are voicing a more strident message. A large number of these voters are expected at the caucus meetings.

“Those who attend are the hard core of the hard core of conservatives,” said Ben Golnik, who managed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s Minnesota campaign in 2008 and isn’t backing a candidate this year. “These are truly dedicated conservatives willing to go on a weeknight in the dead of winter.”

The rebellious mood in Minnesota in some ways belies the state’s prosperity. The unemployment rate in January was 5.7 percent, well below the national rate of 8.3 percent. Minnesota was spared the worst of the housing foreclosure crisis, and the farm economy has been buoyed by high prices.

Even the perpetually struggling Iron Range of northern Minnesota hopes to add hundreds of jobs from new mining projects.

But those positive signs haven’t lightened the tone.

Conservatives continue to focus on a state government that supports some of the nation’s most generous social programs and a tax structure they consider excessive.

The backlash peaked in 2010 when Republicans chose tea party favorite Tom Emmer as their candidate for governor. The staunch conservative beat several Minnesota moderates for the nomination and then narrowly lost to liberal Democrat Mark Dayton. With Republicans in control of the Minnesota Legislature, state government has one of the widest ideological splits in the nation, made plain by last spring’s budget standoff and the government shutdown that followed.

What all the ferment means for the Republican race this year is a much debated question.

Romney has establishment support from the likes of former Sen. Norm Coleman and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

But Jennifer DeJournett, a conservative activist who’s working on Gingrich’s Minnesota campaign, said political developments of the last few years have demonstrated that establishment credentials now count for less than ever.

“It used to be, people could anoint you the conservative candidate and that would be fine,” said DeJournett, who leads an activist group called Voices of Conservative Women. “I think that’s what the establishment is really having to struggle with.”

Sensing an opening for a strong social conservative, Santorum’s supporters are airing ads in Minnesota including a $134,000 TV buy by one group. He visited a rural corner of the state last week. Paul and Gingrich are also expected to visit. Paul’s campaign has already run TV ads. The pro-Romney group Restore Our Future had purchased more than $130,000 of air time as of Friday.

Paul’s campaign has organized hard in Minnesota, a state where he finished a distant fourth in 2008.