Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and John Kline all escaped with their pro-administration/pro-war hides intact. But nearly every Republican operative and candidate said the war was the main issue Tuesday night, and many conceded for the first time that it was a political liability.
"I hate to sound like the mainstream media," KTLK-FM's Jason Lewis said, summarizing the reason for Mark Kennedy's loss, "but I gotta say I think it's the war, primarily."
"The War on Terror is unpopular," opined soon-to-be-former House speaker Steve Sviggum. "But I believe we're still the party that will keep America safe."
Sen. Norm Coleman, who just four years ago was looking like one of Bush's bag boys, was less resolute, noting that "people are troubled about Iraq, and I think people are troubled about the president." And it cost the GOP at least one Senate seat. "Mark Kennedy had no chance," according to Coleman, because "he couldn't get away from [the war]. He didn't get away from it." This sentiment was echoed by GOP Chair Ron Carey, who said late on election night, "Mark played the war wrong.
"In an anti-Republican year, it looks like they broke heavily for the Democrats because they're voting anti-Republican," Carey said. "They weren't saying no to Mary Kiffmeyer, Jeff Johnson, or Pat Anderson, they were saying no to George Bush. The races like that were nationalized."
"I think we were victims, essentially, of a huge punishment of or a negative vote against Republicans in general, because of what's happening at the federal level, clearly. And some of that is the war," said outgoing auditor Pat Anderson. "This election was national, and we all got dragged through it." (Anderson)
BLAMING THE MESSAGE
The first clue that something was amiss in state GOP ranks this year came in the form of an upstart Republican candidacy for governor. Sue Jeffers, a tavern owner in Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota campus, railed against Tim Pawlenty all summer long for betraying his fiscally conservative principles through measures such as his tobacco "user's fee" and his signature on a Twins ballpark bill that relied heavily on public subsidies. The war may have turned away a good number of independent and undecided voters, and the Mark Foley scandal might have alienated some Christian elements. But the party's biggest liability might be the disgust fiscal conservatives—the true Republican base—have with increased government spending and a ballooning national deficit.
This became a hot topic on election night. Conservative talk-show host Jason Lewis summarized turmoil in the party thus: "You've got a GOP that's abandoned a lot of principles when it comes to fiscal issues." And Lewis noted that since the so-called "Republican Revolution" of 1994, the GOP has "turned from the party of principle to the party of self-preservation." Some of the backpedaling being done at the Republican election party at the Sheraton in Bloomington may have been a typical way of rationalizing a huge loss, but some of the self-flagellation is real.
Shortly after her own concession speech, for example, Pat Anderson was voicing strong dismay with her own party. "You've got one group of people who are upset about the war. You've got other people who are upset about a variety of issues from immigration to the deficit. You've even got fiscal conservatives like myself who are mad at the Feds because of the deficit issue," she offered. "There are people like myself who are sort of protesting all that's been going on in Washington in all these issues. And they decided, 'Hey, I'm tired of this, I'm voting and I'm going to send a message.'"
For Anderson, the message is clear: It's time for Republican leadership to rein in the spending and do some "soul searching," as she called it. "There's a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done, frankly, with this party," she noted. "We got spanked nationally and locally everywhere, and for good reason. We strayed from our viewpoints. It is not the Republican position to spend like drunken sailors and run up huge deficits. It's not the Republican position, and yet that's what's been occurring." (Anderson)
BLAMING THE MINNESOTA GOP'S PRIORITIES
For hardcore Republicans, the re-election of Gov. Tim Pawlenty would seem to be the silver lining to an otherwise demoralizing night. But not all the party faithful are taking solace in the governor's against-the-odds triumph. Among the fumers: Andy Aplikowski, chair of the Republican Senate District 51, fervent Mark Kennedy booster, and proprietor of the Residual Forces blog. In his postmortem analysis, Aplikowski called for the head of Republican State Party Chair Ron Carey, whom he blamed for failing to deliver support to any candidate other than Pawlenty:
"They put all of their energy into one race, and barely won it. Meanwhile, they let everything else go and it was up to the individual candidates. Sure we have the governor, but what good will that be? He's all alone now. There is no one left to even try to push him to the right. Because of the tunnel vision of putting all of the eggs in that one basket, they let them steal our entire henhouse."