The race for the Republican nomination for governor has been very low-key and uneventful during the last few months, but I believe the race is about to get more interesting. Four announced major candidates have been running for months and rumors continue to fly that both former House Republican Minority Leader Marty Seifert and State Senator Julie Rosen are contemplating running for governor. The more candidates running for governor increases the possibility that no candidate is endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota (MN GOP) in 2014. A candidate entering the race in the next few weeks would find themselves organizationally behind the candidates that have been already up and running for months.
The best hope for Republicans winning back the governor’s office in 2014 would be if Gov. Dayton didn’t seek re-election. But contrary to the wishful thinking of Republicans, I believe Gov. Dayton runs for re-election and if the vote was today, he’d be a heavy favorite to win. I’ll disclose that I have no formal or informal professional connection to any of the campaigns. This post represents my thoughts on the current state of the Republican candidates running for governor.
The strongest prospects for Republicans in 2014, is to have a candidate who is not considered a political insider or tied to the mostly-Republican supported legislative initiatives which were voted down statewide in 2012. Minnesotans had opportunities to directly vote on two constitutional amendments which were passed by Republican majorities in both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature. Both amendments lost and a Republican candidate for governor connected to this legislation starts their campaign with a couple strikes against them. There are other potential pitfalls for Republican candidates for governor that come directly from the Minnesota Legislature, such as the financing and overall structure of legislation of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Receiving the endorsement of the MN GOP for governor in 2014 will require candidates to win the support of Republican more concerned with conservative purity, than winning elections. Not abiding by the endorsement process of the MN GOP for governor is a must for any candidate wanting to win in 2014.
Four major Republican candidates are currently running for governor and my analysis is that Scott Honour has the most well-rounded campaign for governor to date and positioned himself as the strongest candidate to run against Gov. Dayton. From grassroots to his online presence, Honour has covered the key areas. Honour’s decision to seek, but not abide by the endorsement process of the Republican Party of Minnesota and his rumored ability to largely self-fund his campaign affords him the opportunity to focus directly on the general election. Honour is not a complete political neophyte, having served as a prominent fundraiser for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign and serving as Mitt Romney’s Minnesota Finance Chairman. Some insiders believe Honour hasn’t connected well with rank and file Republican activists.
One Republican candidate for governor who has agreed to abide by the endorsement process of the MN GOP, Jeff Johnson, has already been criticized for sponsoring and attending a speaking event of a 9-11 “truther.” Johnson’s connection to this event is an example of the potential hazards for candidates such as Johnson who commit themselves to abiding by the endorsement process and pandering to a minority crowd inside the MN GOP. If Johnson becomes the endorsed candidate, I would expect additional attacks on his connecting to this event.
Johnson was elected in 2008 as a Hennepin County Commissioner and the Republican National Committeeman from Minnesota in 2011. Johnson served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for six years and he was the MN GOP endorsed candidate for attorney general in 2006. Johnson was defeated by current Attorney General Lori Swanson by 13 points, earning just 40 percent to Swanson’s 53 percent statewide. Johnson is current the only Republican candidate running who has lost a statewide general election and Republicans who remember his 2006 campaign for attorney general have reason to question his ability to organize a winning statewide campaign. One of Johnson’s strongest assets is that he is a very nice guy and it’s tough not to like him. He’s considered the lone fiscal conservatives on the Hennepin County Board, which provides him with a platform to message on a variety of issues.
As Republican National Committeeman, Johnson has earned him the reputation as someone who is working too hard on winning the support of the Libertarian/Republican Liberty Caucus/Tea Party faction of the MN GOP. Johnson helped lead an effort for an obscure rule change deemed important to the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party. This constant outreach seems out of place for Johnson, as his appeal as a candidate is his work as a Hennepin County Commissioner, his work in the Minnesota House of Representatives and his overall personality of just being a really nice guy. Johnson agreement to abide by the endorsement of the MN GOP presents problems to his overall electability in the general election. Johnson’s decision to run for the endorsement is based on necessity, as he needs the financial and organizational resources of the MN GOP to continue his candidacy after the convention. Johnson remains a likely candidate to win the endorsement, but there is no reason to believe today his success as a candidate will be any different from when he ran for statewide office in 2006.
It has been interesting to watch the campaign for governor of former Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives Kurt Zellers. After a few stumbles by Republican candidates in announcing their campaigns, Zellers and his team organized a text-book event. As the former Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and a seasoned campaign-pro, Zellers is a very strong candidate. Zellers knows the technical aspects of running a campaign and he’s likely the best overall campaigner in this race. While many politicos expected key members of the business community to continue waiting for Sen. Julie Rosen to announce her decision to run for governor, Zellers was able to lock down support from both Stan Hubbard and former Target CEO Bob Ulrich. The potential downside of a Zellers’ candidacy is that he was Speaker when Republicans lost control of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2012. He also has spent most of his professional career serving in the Minnesota Legislature. Unpopular legislative initiatives and policies that were used against Republican incumbents in 2012, can be recycled against a Zellers gubernatorial campaign. Simply put: there is a lot of material for the opposition to use against Zellers should he become the last GOP candidate standing. But this weakness is also an opportunity for Zellers in the coming weeks and months. There is no better messenger to defend what Republicans claim they did right and how their policies would have succeed, than Zellers. He is strong in any debate and knows the rigors of the campaign. He’s a very like-able person, with a wonderful family and strong campaign organization.
Finally, State Senator Dave Thompson is also a Republican candidate for governor. As with Jeff Johnson, Thompson has agreed to abide by the MN GOP endorsement for governor in 2014. Aside from being an attorney and state senator, Thompson has previously served as political consultant to various campaigns and the Republican Party of Minnesota. Thompson had a radio-show on AM 1500 KSTP for over seven years and run unsuccessfully for Chairman of the MN GOP in 2009. Thompson is very media savvy and his enthusiastic willingness to speak to the media at any moment should be of concern to Republicans who want to win back the governor’s office in 2014. If Thompson was the GOP candidate for governor, the DFL trackers who follow candidates and record their speeches would have little difficulty in using Thompson’s own words against him. Thompson’s time as a radio-show host will already provide the DFL and their supporting organizations with hours of bombastic commentary from Thompson on a variety of issues.
Thompson is one of the strongest communicators or self-described “orator” running for governor, be he can also over-complicate simple answers to questions. While running for chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Thompson had difficulty articulating if he was Pro-Life, which contributed to his defeat. While his work as a political consultant does have a downside, Thompson’s knowledge of the operations of the MN GOP, plus his hiring of key staff who previously work for the MN GOP makes him a heavy favorite for the endorsement by the MN GOP for governor. If Thompson could retrain his desire to speak to the media and focus on the less glamorous aspects of campaigning for statewide office, he could become a more formidable opponent. Thompson has raw talent, the question for Republican activists is whether he can be molded into a top-notch, statewide candidate for governor.
The MN GOP has tentatively scheduled a straw ballot candidate preference poll to be held at the MNGOP’s upcoming State Central Committee meeting on October 26, 2013, at the National Sport Center in Blaine. Aside from fundraising reports due in early 2014, and the MN GOP’s straw ballot, handicapping the Republican candidates for governor will be a murky science at best. To coincide with the timing of this post, I’ve linked to campaign videos of the Republican candidates mentioned in this post. I’ll have additional analysis as the race develops, so please check back to politics.mn.