Minnesota Republicans’ Bench Problem

The GOP has a shot at replacing Gov. Mark Dayton next year in a blue state, but the party’s field of candidates pales in comparison to the DFL’s.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton at a news conference Thursday in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone
May 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans stand a chance of flip­ping a gov­ernor­ship in a typ­ic­ally blue-lean­ing state—if they can find the right can­did­ate.

Re­pub­lic­ans are hop­ing to take con­trol of the open Min­nesota gov­ernor’s seat for the first time since 2011. But be­ing locked out of all oth­er statewide of­fices has left the party without a bench—or a clear front-run­ner—to take on the task, even as Demo­crats are con­cerned about their own heav­ily con­tested primary.

“Clearly, we have an A-list set of can­did­ates on our side com­pared to their C- or D-list,” said Ken Mar­tin, chair of the Min­nesota Demo­crat­ic-Farm­er-Labor Party. “But that doesn’t mean that they can’t win. Par­tic­u­larly, they win if we beat ourselves.”

Demo­crat­ic Gov. Mark Dayton, who is not seek­ing a third term, en­joys his highest ap­prov­al rat­ings yet, ac­cord­ing to a new Star Tribune Min­nesota Poll. The state last year came with­in 2 points of vot­ing for Pres­id­ent Trump, barely con­tinu­ing its 40-year streak of vot­ing for Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees. But the GOP did flip the state Sen­ate last year and has held the state House since the 2014 midterms.

Dayton’s im­pend­ing exit has pro­pelled can­did­ates to jump in. Rep. Tim Walz is com­pet­ing with state Aud­it­or Re­becca Otto, St. Paul May­or Chris Cole­man, and state Rep. Erin Murphy for the Min­nesota DFL’s en­dorse­ment. Rep. Rick No­lan and state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lori Swan­son could also run.

Mar­tin said he is wor­ried about a re­peat of 1998, when a gubernat­ori­al primary between Hubert Humphrey III, Mike Free­man, Ted Mondale, and former state Aud­it­or Dayton left Humphrey “bruised, bloody, and broke,” in Mar­tin’s words, al­low­ing former pro­fes­sion­al wrest­ler Jesse Ven­tura to beat Humphrey and Re­pub­lic­ans’ pick, fu­ture Sen. Norm Cole­man.

The gov­ernor’s 2014 chal­lenger, Hen­nepin County Com­mis­sion­er Jeff John­son, an­nounced last week he would make an­oth­er go. He joins state Rep. Matt Dean and Ram­sey County Com­mis­sion­er Blake Huff­man in the Re­pub­lic­an race, and state Speak­er Kurt Daudt and Hen­nepin County Sher­iff Richard Stanek have also ex­pressed in­terest in run­ning. Both parties pre­dict that more can­did­ates will an­nounce after the le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion ends this month.

John­son and Dean told Na­tion­al Journ­al that they won’t run in the primary against the state Re­pub­lic­an Party’s con­ven­tion en­dorsee next year. Huff­man said at his cam­paign kick­off last month that he would also abide by the party’s wishes “un­less I’m un­fairly at­tacked.”

“In ad­di­tion to the hard-core party act­iv­ists, the rank-and-file voters tend to really take that en­dorse­ment … as a ser­i­ous step and the party’s stamp of ap­prov­al,” said Gregg Pep­pin, who was a seni­or ad­viser to John­son when he won the con­ven­tion and primary vote in 2014.

If Re­pub­lic­ans do rally around their con­ven­tion pick, it will give them more time to pivot to the gen­er­al elec­tion. None of the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates have com­mit­ted to back­ing the con­ven­tion’s pre­ferred can­did­ate, Mar­tin said.

“There isn’t a Demo­crat in Min­nesota that doesn’t know the im­port­ance of hold­ing onto the gov­ernor’s of­fice,” Chris Cole­man said Monday, pre­dict­ing “a great deal of unity” after the June 2018 con­ven­tion. “Also, every­body that’s in this race is a friend of mine. We’ve known each oth­er a long time, and this is not about the de­fi­cits of any­body else.”

Re­pub­lic­ans note that their last gov­ernor, Tim Pawlenty, won his first statewide of­fice when the former House ma­jor­ity lead­er won in 2002, and that many in the field have ex­pan­ded their reach bey­ond their geo­graph­ic bases in the Min­neapol­is and St. Paul sub­urbs.

John­son, for in­stance, in an in­ter­view Thursday touted his fun­drais­ing suc­cess and ap­peal to in­de­pend­ent voters three years ago.

“I’ve ac­tu­ally been through the statewide battle already,” John­son said, “and I think that makes me a much stronger can­did­ate than any­one who hasn’t, which is likely to be every­body else in the race.”

Dean said Monday that as a former ma­jor­ity lead­er of the Min­nesota House, he used up “a trans­mis­sion and a set of tires” cam­paign­ing for his col­leagues, in­clud­ing in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts. Dean says act­iv­ists also re­cog­nize him for his op­pos­i­tion to MN­sure, the state ex­change set up by the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“Ob­vi­ously, none of them have the name ID of a Tim Walz,” said Luke Hel­li­er, pub­lic-af­fairs strategist and former press sec­ret­ary to the Min­nesota Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an caucus. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not win­nable.”

If Re­pub­lic­ans have any hope of win­ning in 2018, they’ll need to im­prove on 2016’s res­ults, which will re­quire find­ing a can­did­ate that can ap­peal to Trump’s co­ali­tion.

“It’s up in the air on which can­did­ate can en­er­gize those people,” Hel­li­er said, adding, “There’s a lot of people that are ba­sic­ally wait­ing to see who that is.”

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