Conservative Freedom Club seeks to become more visible

Back in March, nationally-syndicated radio host Jason Lewis headlined a townhall meeting of conservatives in St. Cloud, Minn.

Given his celebrity among the right, Lewis regularly makes appearances at such events.

But it was unusual that the townhall was sponsored, organized and advertised by the Freedom Club, a political organization that has long maintained a relatively low profile while spending more than $1.8 million in 2012 to help Republican candidates win office.

“It was sort of a meeting of the minds,” Lewis said, describing the event, which cost $5 to get in. “The idea was to get more people involved.”

In recent months, the Freedom Club has stepped up its visibility at a time when Minnesota Republicans are in the minority and more conservative groups are cropping up to play a role in the 2014 elections.

The townhall was a new concept, said Freedom Club Executive Director Mike Scholl. He expects the Freedom Club to host more events like the St. Cloud meeting.

“I think one of the main reasons to have a bit more of a public presence is because there are people across the state of Minnesota that share the same values as the Freedom Club,” he said. “So we want to let them know this organization is in existence, that we do share these beliefs, these values, here’s an organization you can get involved with.”

Scholl said the Freedom Club wants more people to know that the group represents a conservative brand of politics that supports small government, lower taxes, and legislation that would make union membership voluntary, among other things.

Earlier this year, the Freedom Club created a Facebook page. And it recently overhauled its website, where it advertises upcoming events (a luncheon with Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith Downey next week), outlines the requirements and cost of membership (between $3,000 and $7,000), solicits donations of any size (Scholl said the group is trying to find money “wherever we can get it”) and lists members of its board.

In the past, that information wasn’t always easy to find.

Indeed, the group has traditionally played a quiet but influential role in shaping Minnesota politics, relying on a relatively short list of generous business owners for donations and spending hundreds of thousands on state races.

The same can be said for Robert Cummins, a Plymouth-area businessman who helped start the group and serves as a major benefactor. Between 2011 and 2012, the Freedom Club received nearly $1.9 million in contributions, with roughly $1.4 million coming from Cummins and his wife. But otherwise, Cummins steers clear of the spotlight.

The group had enormous success in 2010, when it spent more than $874,000 from its political action committee to help Republican legislative candidates take control of the state Capitol. In 2012, the Freedom Club had less luck. It spent nearly $2 million, but the Legislature ended up controlled by the DFL.

Scholl attributes those losses to an array of factors, pointing out that Republicans had a bad year nationally and locally.

“I think it’s a combination of the data that the state PAC has and folks on the right have, the candidates, the environment, what was happening down ticket, what was happening across the country,” he said. “I think the biggest lesson learned is that in a presidential year in Minnesota, you have a higher turnout and it often helps the Democrats and the groups on the left.”

But he also said that there are a few things the Freedom Club could be doing better. Voter identification is one area where Scholl hopes to spend more in 2014.

At this point, the group hasn’t decided which 2014 races it will play in. That’s left up to members of the group, Scholl said, though the legislative, gubernatorial and congressional races are all on the table.

And unlike in 2011, during Gov. Mark Dayton’s first term, the Freedom Club has decided not to spend its money on television issue ads this year. It’s not worth the money when the governor’s office and the Legislature are controlled by the same party, Scholl said.

Instead, the group is waiting to see the effects of the DFL’s proposed budget and tax increases.

“Is it better to draw attention now before the policies are enacted? Or is it better to wait to actually get some of the effects, and then you can say, ‘well, look what’s happening,'” Scholl said.