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Keith Downey, former GOP chair, is running for governor with the message: 'I believe in you.'

Former Minnesota Republican Chairman Keith Downey speaks during an event Thursday, July 25, 2016. File photo / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — After four years of running the Minnesota Republican Party, former chairman Keith Downey is bidding to run the entire state.

Downey, who comes from a systems management background and has made a mark on the state by working on major changes in politics and government, took on leadership of the party in a time of political and financial turmoil. But, he says, he brought it stability and can do the same for the state as governor.

"My message to the people of Minnesota is going to be 'I believe in you,' " he said in an interview before his announcement Monday, July 24. "I trust Minnesotans, not bigger government for our future. What we are seeing in Minnesota more and more is a failure to thrive."

Although he has built deep connections and knowledge of Minnesota Republican activists and donors, Downey cuts a different profile than those already running to take the helm of the state from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton next year. He has served in the Minnesota House — before bidding for the state Senate and losing in a historically expensive race — but unlike other contenders he is not currently in government.

On the Republican side, Rep. Matt Dean and county commissioners Blake Huffman and Jeff Johnson are already in the race, alongside several lesser known or frequent candidates. House Speaker Kurt Daudt had long appeared interested or even gearing up for a race but said last week that he had sincerely not decided whether to make a bid.

Even while he was chairing the party, Downey subtly pushed an alternative vision than the Republicans in the Legislature. In 2015, with Republicans in control of the Minnesota House, he authorized — and appeared in — a party television advertisement proposing to return that year's $1.9 billion state budget surplus to taxpayers.

As recently as this spring, he sent out a message warning of "runaway spending" and trashing the 2015 budget, which GOP House members approved.

This approach has contributed to Downey becoming a controversial figure inside the party he led. He openly clashed with his deputy chair and has naysayers among legislative Republicans despite the GOP taking over both houses of the Legislature under his tenure.

"The only electoral wins Downey has been a part of are the ones where other people did his job for him," state Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said in a tweet.

Downey does have support from one Republican elder statesman: former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who said Minnesota isn't living up to its potential but that "Keith can fix that."

The proposal to cut government spending is not new to Downey. While in the House from 2009 to 2012 as a representative from tony suburban Edina, he was among the Republican lawmakers who pushed to reduce programs. The measures he sponsored included titles with the words "streamlined," "repealed," "consolidated" and "innovation" in them — all aimed at making Minnesota government smaller and, he says, more efficient.

He said if he became governor he would set the goal of reducing state spending by 15 percent. The current two-year budget sets spending at about $46 billion.

"This isn't about cutting government or services. This is about positioning Minnesota for the 21st century," said Downey, who pitched his candidacy for party chair with a PowerPoint presentation to share his plan with activists.

He said in 2018, Minnesota will have the opportunity to change the way it does things.

"A big question, I think, facing Minnesota voters in 2018 is: Do want to embrace those changes ... or are we going to sit here and continue to run the Barack Obama, Mark Dayton playbook?" he said.

The chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Ken Martin, said Downey "is not the man for the job."

"Instead of focusing on building better lives for people in our state, Downey has pushed a hardcore conservative agenda that is out of touch with Minnesotans," Martin said in a statement.