Downey attempts leap from party chief to governor

Former Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey talks after filing paperwork to run for governor in 2018. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Former Minnesota Republican Party Chair Keith Downey entered the 2018 race for governor Monday, attempting to convert connections he built during four years at the helm into support in an increasingly crowded field.

Downey, 56, filed paperwork to begin building out a campaign and raising money. The business consultant and former state legislator from Edina left his leadership post at the party in April.

Downey joins a field of eight Republicans who have announced so far, with more testing the waters before deciding if they’ll get in. Downey said he’s got the background and skill set to break out of the pack.

“I know where the issues are. I know how to tackle them. I know how to get it done. And I think I have a track record in business, in the Legislature and as state party chair of really getting things done,” he said. “We need results, not excuses, and that’s what I intend to run on.”

The race is wide open because Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton isn’t seeking a third term. National Republicans see it as an opportunity to give their party total control of another Capitol in a state where that hasn’t happened in more than a half-century.

Among the top contenders on the GOP side so far: Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the party’s 2014 nominee; state Rep. Matt Dean, a former House majority leader; and Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman. Several sitting lawmakers, including House Speaker Kurt Daudt, are giving the race a hard look.

Hanging over the 2018 campaign is the political uncertainty caused by Republican President Donald Trump, who is adored by his base but has watched his approval rating nationally sink. Trump came close to putting Minnesota in his column last year.

Downey said Trump’s ability to muscle his agenda through will have a bearing on the election-year mood of voters. So far, Trump has hit roadblocks on his desire for a health care overhaul and limited action on tax and immigration proposals.

“If we’re having some success out there, I think people of Minnesota will look at it and say these are the types of things Trump has elected on, those are the things he has obviously continued to fight for as president and those are positive thing we think should come to Minnesota,” Downey said.

Because of his party role, Downey was neutral during the 2016 presidential primaries but was full-square behind Trump once he secured the nomination. He said Trump was a disruptive force who drew new voters into the Republican fold.

“We have welcomed them in, we’ve welcomed their participation and their voice in what we’re doing,” he said. “Any race in Minnesota is going to have to consider that voice and those people and what they’re looking for from their government and from their politics.”

Despite being a Republican Party insider, Downey distanced himself from that label.

“I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in politics and when I was in the Legislature I had a very strong legislative record of trying to reform government and really fix it and really position our state for the future,” he said.

Downey served two terms in the Minnesota House beginning in 2009 and made a name for himself by trying to reel in pensions and benefits for state employees. He said proposals to shrink government and “get it off of peoples’ backs and make it more effective” would be among those he’d purse as governor.

He ran for state Senate in 2012 but came up short. He was elected party chairman in 2013.

Downey’s time in charge isn’t without controversy. In fact, state Rep. Kelly Fenton, who was deputy chair under Downey initially, took to Twitter on Monday to blast the former GOP boss. She questioned his track record of electoral wins — no statewide candidate has been elected since 2006 — and doubted his chances.

“His own district voted against him for Senate, what would be his path to victory for governor?” Fenton tweeted.

Downey struck back at Fenton, calling her “bitter” and suggested she held a grudge for a pay cut she took in the deputy position.

“When you drain the swamp in politics, the establishment fights you tooth and nail,” he wrote on Twitter.