Minn. Republicans look for fresh faces after Bachmann, Pawlenty

By Tim Pugmire

St. Paul, Minn. — U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s decision to end her presidential campaign means yet another prominent Minnesota Republican could be moving off the political stage.

Unless Bachmann decides to run for a fourth term or seek a statewide office, the Republican Party of Minnesota faces the prospect of having few recognizable political personalities in an important election year.

Bachmann has yet to announce her plans for the future. In announcing the end of her campaign, she said it was time to stand aside in the presidential contest.

But she made it clear that she wouldn’t disappear all together or end her fight for key conservative issues. Bachmann also suggested that the next move was not entirely hers to make.

“I look forward to the next chapter in God’s plan,” she said. “He has one for each of us you know.”

One obvious option for Bachmann is to run for re-election. She still has time to decide as Republicans in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District don’t meet until mid-April to endorse a candidate. David FitzSimmons, the district’s GOP chairman, called Bachmann a strong, national voice for the party and said he will soon urge her to run again.

“I fully intend that she’ll get back to her congressional campaign, and I fully support her in that,” FitzSimmons said. “I think she has a broad base of support amongst Republicans in the 6th District.”

But Bachmann could also be the latest in a series of Republicans to leave the political limelight. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who abandoned his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, has largely been silent in recent months.

The state GOP also has seen its image damaged from within. In December, Party Chairman Tony Sutton resigned, leaving behind a financial mess. A recent scandal forced state Sen. Amy Koch to resign as majority leader following her admission of an “inappropriate relationship” with a male staffer. Meanwhile, former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, once a heavyweight, has largely disappeared from public view.

So far, no prominent Republican has emerged as a candidate in this year’s U.S. Senate race to challenge Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

Nevertheless, FitzSimmons is convinced the party has plenty of political stars. Among then, he said, are newly elected Chairman Pat Shortridge, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, House Majority Leader Matt Dean and the four GOP members of Congress.

“You know, Michele Bachmann obviously, and John Kline, Erik Paulsen, Chip Cravaack are a great team in Congress,” FitzSimmons said. “You also have our state leadership. So, with Sen. [Dave] Senjem and Kurt Zellers and Matt Dean, I think you have a great legislative team.”

But none of those lawmakers represents the whole state, and many Minnesotans might be hard pressed to recognize them.

Still, local races are a key part of the strategy this year. All 201 legislative seats are up for grabs in November, and Republicans in the Legislature want to hold on to the House and Senate majorities that they won in 2010.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester, who replaced Koch last week, said he thinks legislative candidates will be the faces voters see when they think of Republicans. Senjem conceded that he too is now a face of the party.

“You know, I’ve never thought of that. But yeah, probably in a way the speaker and myself do represent the face of the party going into the election,” Senjem said. “And certainly we’re going to bring Pat Shortridge along, the chair of the GOP. But, I think collectively we’ll work well together. I’ve worked with Pat before, and we’ll work well together.”

Senjem said he’s working hard to move the party and his caucus past recent, high-profile missteps.

But some political observers see a Republican vacuum that could linger through the election. Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the state GOP could be a faint whisper during this year’s campaign.

“I think there’s probably going to be more pressure on the party, not only to rebuild financially, but to pick up its game in terms of recruiting top caliber candidates,” Jacobs said. “It went from an embarrassment of riches three or four years ago, with Tim Pawlenty and a number of other bright young faces in the Republican Party, to a point now where the bench is a little bit empty.”

Jacobs said Minnesota Republicans had one of the nation’s most ambitious and successful state parties just a few years ago. He said party leaders are now under pressure to regroup and recover from what he called their recent losing streak.

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