By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
When the Republican National Convention comes to St. Paul in September and the city's otherwise sleepy streets are pulsing with journalists, delegates, motorcades, and protestors, a few well-known local Republicans will no doubt figure prominently in the national spotlight. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Norm Coleman, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and maybe even state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert will find themselves Blitzer-ed, O'Reilly-ed, and perhaps Colbert-ed.
Yet a handful of Minnesota's most powerful Republicans will be invisible to national audiences. These high-powered Republican players prefer to work in the shadows. They wield their power in many different ways. Some are strategists, others are organizers, financiers, fundraisers, or facilitators. They've shaped the conservative landscape in the state. A few have had a national impact.
And chances are most Minnesotans have never heard of them.
For Minnesota Republicans, there is a hard-earned glory to hosting the convention. At the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia, the Minnesota delegation was seated on the convention floor next to Guam. Delegates were assigned to a hotel an hour and a half away.
In 2008 those delegates will be sleeping in their own beds. "The message that Minnesota matters in national GOP circles is huge," says Sarah Janecek, a prominent Republican who publishes the Politics in Minnesota newsletter.
It's been a long haul for the state's Republicans. "The national conservative revolution of the '90s didn't reach as deeply into Minnesota politics," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. Actually, it was just late. Around 1997, a handful of party stalwarts started to turn things around.
Republicans won the House majority in 1998. Party membership increased, and the checks were practically cashing themselves. Things were looking up, until they weren't. November 2006 turned out to be a slaughter.
"Politics is cyclical," says state Republican Secretary-Treasurer Tony Sutton. "We're trying to feel our way through the losses of '06."
Vin Weber, a former U.S. congressman and an omnipresent force in Republican politics, has seen the sidelines before. "When the conservatives were not the dominant wing of the party they were much more open to young people and outsiders. They were the outsiders."
Many Republicans hope that hosting the party's national convention will signal a resurgence of Republican power in Minnesota. If so, the current will surely pass through the people on these pages—the shadow figures of the state's conservative power base.
THE QUIET GIANT
Founder, Feather, Larson & Synhorst
CEO, Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee
Jeff Larson is "perhaps the most powerful GOP operative nationwide," says Sarah Janecek. "And he earned it." Many say that he was also the single most important person in bringing the Republican National Convention to St. Paul.
Larson is a powerhouse political consultant, specializing in highly sophisticated and doggedly thorough campaign techniques: telemarketing, email blasts, strategic maps and manuals for campaign foot soldiers, and a host of other obscure and powerful services.
His company, Feather, Larson & Synhorst (FLS), which he founded with two other campaign heavyweights, was paid $18 million for its work on George W. Bush's national re-election campaign. The company's website boasts that Larson has "worked on behalf of 35 state parties, dozens of gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and U.S. congressional candidates, along with national organizations including the Republican National Committee."
For a time, there was a blurb on the FLS website from none other than über-strategist Karl Rove, a friend and colleague of Larson's. "I know these guys well. They become partners with the campaigns they work with. From designing the program to drafting scripts; from selecting targets to making the calls in a professional, successful way, they work as hard to win your races as you do."
Larson has worked himself into the highest echelons of Republican politics from the dregs of the political hierarchy. His first job in politics was as a driver for Bud Westman, a man vying for a North Dakota Senate seat. Within weeks Larson was Westman's deputy campaign manager. Westman lost and Larson moved on. In 1984 he was working the re-election campaign for the state's governor. After another loss, he made an incongruous leap to executive director of the Delaware Republican Party. Incongruous leaps became Larson's thing. Next he was a Republican National Committee field agent under Lee Atwater. Can you smell a Rolodex cooking?
His RNC fieldwork gig covered 13 states, including Minnesota. He worked the RNC job, with an added position in the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, until Bill Clinton's election slammed the door on his party ambition in 1992.
If Larson was demoralized, he was not immobilized. He stepped into an underworld of political campaigning that would be his gateway to unfathomable political influence. That underworld was a place where a few bright and tireless entrepreneurs began experimenting with the possibilities of using emerging technologies to supercharge old-fashioned, pavement-pounding campaigning.
He started with a company called Strategic Communications, and in 1999 he helped launch Feather, Larson, and Synhorst.