Ousted from power, GOP ponders Capitol role

Published 9:43 am Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ST. PAUL — Booted from statehouse power, Minnesota Republicans must figure out whether their new role at the Capitol will be as the noisy opposition trying to impede the all-Democratic government, an accommodating minority content to scratch out small victories or something in between.

The formal conversion of control occurs in January when the Legislature returns with Democrats in charge of the House and Senate to go along with a Democratic governor. It’s the first time since the 1990 session that one party has held all three at once.

In last week’s election, Republicans forfeited the legislative majorities they claimed just two years earlier. The will return with a 61-seat minority in the House and a 28-seat minority in the Senate, pending a recount in each chamber.

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The result opened a debate within the GOP about how to best position the party for 2014, when all but the state Senate is again on the ballot. Some are pressing for sharp contrasts that leave little doubt where each party stands. Others are worried that voters will punish lawmakers who come off as stubbornly partisan.

State Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said GOP legislators should serve as the “principled opposition” by offering their own proposals when they can’t embrace the Democratic-crafted plans. He said Democrats no longer can use divided government as an excuse for inaction.

“With power comes accountability. They’ll be held accountable for their ideas and their votes,” Shortridge said. “They spent two decades blaming other people. Now it’s on them. Now they have the opportunity to govern.”

The arrangement poses some challenges for Democrats. With little GOP help needed to advance most of their agenda, there could be strong temptation to go it alone.

But Bob Hume, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Mark Dayton, said the first-term Democratic governor intends to keep Republicans in the mix.

“Our take on the election is what was rejected were extremes and gridlock,” Hume said. “Our goal is to figure out a way to govern that includes everyone.”

Former state Rep. Jeff Johnson said his fellow Republicans should look for opportunities to build coalitions rather than resorting to confrontation. In his first two years, Dayton has proven open to Republican ideas for school accountability measures.

“Part of your job when you’re in the minority is to figure out if there are smaller victories,” Johnson said. “It’s not just about being the backstop. We don’t have a backstop anymore.”

If legislative Democrats remain unified, they can pass education policy or write the $35 billion-plus two-year budget without any GOP votes. But Republicans do have a bit of leverage because passing a borrowing package for public works projects requires a three-fifths vote, and Democrats are well shy of that edge.

House Republicans opted for a fresh face to lead them. They passed over several veteran lawmakers to elevate Rep. Kurt Daudt of Crown — only two years into his legislative career — to the role of minority leader.

Daudt said he is watching for early cues to assess whether early Democratic pledges of cooperation are more than just rhetoric. If Republican staff complements are dramatically reduced or party ratios on committees are strongly tilted, it won’t bode well for what he hopes is a constructive rapport, Daudt said.

Even as Daudt spoke of a desire for compromise, he made clear there are lines his members won’t cross.

“I’m not going to be an attack dog, but we intend to show a clear alternative if the Democrats stray off on an extreme tax-raising agenda,” he said.

His tone is echoed by Sen. David Hann, the newly selected Republican minority leader.

“We will work with them when we can but we will be serving as a check when we think they are exceeding what people’s expectations are,” Hann said after his selection.

When Republicans were in charge, Dayton took steps to forge bonds with caucus leaders and rank-and-file members. He invited them on hunting and fishing trips and held regular breakfasts with them at the governor’s mansion to keep lines of communication open, even when a budget standoff pushed state government into a shutdown in 2011.

After Daudt and Hann were named leaders, Dayton prodded his staff for contact information so he could begin that outreach anew.