Macalester is home to some of the state’s leading college conservatives. While college guidebooks may refute this as an oxymoron given Macalester’s liberal-leaning population (Princeton Review ranked Macalester the #1 most liberal campus in 2011), the recent resurrection of a Republican charter, MacGOP, has mobilized conservative students to take action.
One such student, Danny Surman ’14, the co-founder of the re-established MacGOP, recently concluded an unsuccessful campaign for chair of the Minnesota College Republicans (MNCR). Surman co-chaired MacGOP in 2012 when the group was awarded MNCR Chapter of the Year, and he was Vice Chair of the Metro Region for MNCR. He spent a good portion of his spring semester on the road meeting with other MNCR chapters around the state.
Current MacGOP chair Ryan Daly ’15 referred to Surman as a “one-man campaign machine.” Surman said he never took a day off from his campaign.
“I can tell you I put twice as much time into that as I have for school this semester,” he said.
Despite his impressive resumé, Surman lost the April 20 election to University of St. Thomas (UST) student Andrew Hasek by a 71 to 40 margin. St. Thomas is coming off a MNCR chapter revitalization of its own. With Hasek as chair, the UST group reportedly quadrupled their meeting attendance, which resulted in MNCR naming them the 2013 Chapter of the Year.
Accumulating only 36 percent of the vote was not a surprise for Surman, who considered himself the underdog. As he explained, voting is influenced by chapter populations. Each chapter receives one delegate vote for every 10 of its chapter members. As a result, Macalester’s chapter was granted only five delegate votes whereas the larger and more politically balanced St. Thomas amassed 28 delegates.
“Considering that challenge alone, it would be incredible for someone from Macalester to win any statewide race,” Daly said. “[Surman] did very well considering those obstacles.”
Fellow MacGOP member Zach Gilfix ’16 said he was pleased to see MacGOP make its presence known at the state level.
“It was nice to show [Minnesota College Republicans] that we have someone we can put out there and that we have a decent base of conservatives here,” he said.
Before the election, controversy was sparked when members of the St. Thomas delegation attempted to create a rule change that would re quire delegates to vote on the same ticket for all four seats. This upset Surman, leading him to fight back against the proposed rules change, eventually garnering enough support to overturn the suggested change.
“We can act like adults and let people split their tickets,” he said. “We don’t have to assume that [people] don’t know anything about these races.”
Despite Macalester’s more liberal-leaning student population, Surman’s campaign received support from students across the aisle.
“I was disappointed he didn’t win the election for MNCR Chairman,” said Dan Knickelbein ’14, co-chair of Macalester Democrats, “but I know regardless he will go on to do great things both in politics and in life in general.”
While the outcome was not optimal for Surman, he said that the gains of running for election were tremendous.
“I learned … don’t let a defeat set you back too far,” he said. “In this campaign, I’ve met so many people across the state. […] Those are relationships where someone’s going to remember that you took the time to meet with them to pitch your ideas with them. So you’re building relationships that could last the rest of your life.”
On the statewide front, Surman is focused on a finance plan that he developed with his campaign, which included a goal of raising $50,000 to fund three field staffers in the state. “Now I’m a known brand in the state with politicos,” Surman said, “not just college students, but also important party players.”
While Surman’s fellow MacGOP members supported him in his run for MNCR chair, they agreed that Hasek will make a good chair.
“Frankly we had two well-qualified candidates vying for Chair,” said Andrew Ojeda ’14. “Danny ran a great campaign and had a solid plan for the organization. It didn’t work out but we’re looking forward to working with the new administration to boost chapters around the state. I’ve known Andrew Hasek for a while now and I know he’ll do a great job.”
Hasek himself said that he considers Surman a friend and hopes to continue working with him in the future.
“[Surman] is a committed conservative activist and has done great things at Macalester, which isn’t easy,” Hasek said. “I would love to especially use his knowledge of the Minnesota political landscape to make as effective an organization as I can in my year as Chairman.”
“We live three blocks from each other,” Surman said of Hasek. “Whenever we have to hash out political arguments, we take it to the Groveland Tap, buy each other a beer and sort out whatever mess we’re in. So I’m sure we’re going to do it again.”
Looking ahead, Surman said that he does not plan on remaining in a chief leadership role within MacGOP. This year, he handed off his chair position in the school chapter to Daly.
“I’m proud of the record I have here, but we have to let someone else take the reigns for it to continue on after I graduate,” Surman said.
Surman said that when picked Macalester, he knew of the more liberal political atmosphere he was getting into. To connect with like-minded students, he insisted on building up a dissenting political group on campus.
“It was a lot of building personal relationships,” he said.
These personal relationships were a key part of bringing current key players into the organization.
“Ryan Daly didn’t want anything to do with the Republican Party at first,” Surman said. “I saw him at the org fair and recognized him as someone on Facebook who liked Ayn Rand and [I] was like, ‘You’re joining MacGOP.’ He thought I was insane, but we put him down, and now he’s the leader. So it was really about, if you don’t have a big number of people, you have to build the personal relationships to make it happen.”
Daly remembered the day.
“This weirdo [Surman] called me from the crowd because he recognized me from my Facebook profile picture,” he said.
Meanwhile, MacGOP offered Jeff Garcia ’14 and Anish Krishnan ’14 an outlet for wrestling with their evolving political ideas. Garcia, a co-founder of the group, said he was one of the most liberal students in his high school but became more skeptical upon entering Macalester. Krishnan said his political leanings were also in flux. As he described it, he was confused.
“Then I met Danny Surman and he told me to go to MacGOP,” Krishnan said. “I did, and that’s where political activism started.”
Gilfix’s MacGOP experience began in a similar way.
“Going into college, I knew that I wanted to be involved politically, but I didn’t know what there was to offer,” he said. “[Surman] came to me and asked me if I approved or disapproved of Ron Paul. I said that I approved and then from there he told me to intern for Andrew Ojeda and then join MacGOP.”
Gilfix followed Surman’s advice. MacGOP played a significant role in Ojeda’s campaign for the state House of Representatives.
“Last year, we had more people showing up to our meetings half the time than Mac Dems,” Surman said. “There is an opportunity, especially when their group was disorganized, for us to fill in the gap, and we took advantage of it.”
While the group has been thriving recently, Surman admitted that the group’s future is uncertain.
“It goes through a couple of strong years and then it cycles,” he said. “If you’re going to be a Republican at Macalester and you’re going to fight for your values on this campus, it’s a tough thing. You’re either a really strong leader or the organization falls apart.”
“We know we’re the insurgents on campus,” Surman said. “It gives us an energy because we know we’re in this together.”
Daly said he views MacGOP as an alternative to the Macalester mainstream. Because of this, he said the group’s actions or ideas are often misinterpreted.
“Most of the accusations that we’d face as a party are inaccurate when applied to us as an organization,” he said. “We don’t represent a party of the rich as far as I know.”
Knickelbein said MacGOP’s existence is beneficial to Macalester.
“[They] help encourage political dialogue, as they are one of a handful of dissenting voices,” he said. “People give them some flack, but I know most of the people in the org and they are all really nice people.”
Surman said he is good friends with several of the Mac Dems leaders including Knickelbein. “We’ve never had a really aggressive relationship between each other,” he said.
Garcia encouraged students to come and talk with MacGOP.
“People here will make a lot of assumptions about us,” he said. “Everyone in MacGOP that I know has always been willing to listen, to debate and be friendly with other politically inclined people on campus.”
Gilfix said moving forward, MacGOP will try to find a balance between activism that the majority of campus can sympathize with and activism that is outside the norm on campus and can educate people. Garcia agreed. He mentioned the possibility of hosting a gun rights event that might appear more in-line with “mainstream” conservative politics, followed by an event on crony capitalism that he expects would receive bipartisan support.
“[We want] to do events that will get people talking and stir up more conversation,” Garcia said.
Editor’s Note: Danny Surman is a managing editor at the Mac Weekly.