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.”