ST. PAUL, Minn. — It wasn't so long ago that Minnesota seemed like an attractive target for an emboldened GOP trying to expand its list of presidential battlegrounds. But a financial tailspin at state party headquarters and allegations of infidelity involving one of the party's young stars have Republicans watching in horror as their brand is tarnished.
The worst-case scenario for Republicans: that donors will see the party as a bad investment, diverting resources that might have been spent making the Obama campaign defend once-friendly turf; and that grass-roots activists, turned off by scandal and dysfunction, will sit out the election cycle.
While a Republican presidential campaign "will invest in Minnesota if it thinks they can win it, they will also look at how well the party is doing its basic functions – identifying Republicans, getting out the vote," Scott Cottington, a St. Paul-based political consultant who works on GOP campaigns around the country, said Tuesday. "They will make a decision based in part on the strength of the collective effort."
The potential problems reach far deeper than presidential politics. Newly won Republican majorities in the state House and Senate started to look wobbly last week when Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch abruptly resigned her leadership post and said she wouldn't seek re-election. A day later, several of her Republican colleagues said Koch quit only after they confronted her with rumors of her "inappropriate relationship" with a Senate employee.
But that was only the worst piece of news on a terrible day for Republicans. The same day Koch's colleagues went public with their claims, the front-runner to take control of the financially troubled state party dropped out of the race after revelations of an arrest for expired car registration and an earlier sexual harassment lawsuit. And a Republican candidate to challenge popular Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar next year admitted a 2005 arrest for carrying a loaded gun at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
By late afternoon Friday party operatives, activists and true believers were jamming Twitter with open consternation. "I need a drink," tweeted Mark Drake, a former state party spokesman.
It wasn't always this way. Despite Minnesota's longstanding liberal reputation, conservative Republicans made real gains in the state throughout the past decade. President George W. Bush made a serious – though ultimately unsuccessful – play in 2004 at breaking the Democratic lock on the state's electoral votes that dates to 1976. As recently as 2008, the party had national rising stars in the likes of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman, and the Republican National Committee chose St. Paul as the site of its 2008 national convention.
Today Pawlenty is in private life after a failed run for president, and Coleman lost his 2008 election to Al Franken. Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann remains in the presidential race, but has struggled in polls after a brief burst of success earlier this year.
Obama dispatched John McCain handily here, and the party no longer holds a single statewide elected office. So far, Republicans have failed to recruit any formidable opponent for Klobuchar. And few talk with confidence of Minnesota as a presidential pickup opportunity the way they do neighboring states like Iowa and Wisconsin.
"I anticipate Obama will carry the state," said Joe Repya, a conservative activist and former Army officer who ran unsuccessfully for Republican state chairman in 2007.
Repya is blunter than most of his fellow Republicans when it comes to the financial mess facing the state party, with debt estimated from $500,000 and $1.2 million. In recent weeks, the party's chairman, deputy chairman and executive director have all left their jobs. Departing chairman Tony Sutton pinned the debt on his decision to bankroll a recount of the 2010 governor's race, in which Democrat Mark Dayton ultimately emerged triumphant.
"I'm not sure most Republicans understand how deep the trouble we're in right now," Repya said. "Next year is going to be a tough year for the party. I really think so. I wish I could shed a glimmer of hope, but I'm a realist."
Bill Guidera, the party's finance chairman, said the next leader will have to make reassuring jittery Republican donors a top priority.
"Because of the financial situation, we need to convince our donors at all levels that we have a business plan to relieve the debt, and get us into positive growth," Guidera said.
Numerous Minnesota Republicans insist Election Day 2012 is far enough off for the party to right itself. Factors like the economy, Obama's poll numbers and the strength of the Republican presidential candidate will keep conservative donors motivated, they say.
"This isn't September of 2012," said Phil Krinkie, a former Republican state lawmaker and anti-tax activist. "There's plenty of times to put things back together again. Out of the muck and the mire comes the lotus blossom."
But money's not the only problem. The infidelity claims against the married Koch has Democrats crying hypocrisy, since she was part of a push to allow voters in 2012 to decide whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state Constitution.
Ken Martin, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Democrats will make it a prominent issue as they try to undo last year's Republican takeover of the Legislature and help Obama defend the state. Martin questioned, though, if Democrats would even need to make much of an argument.
"There's an old adage in politics," Martin said. "When your opponent is committing political suicide, it's best to stand out of the way."