Last Friday, TPT’s Almanac hosted the first debate between the Republican candidates for governor since the Republican Party of Minnesota’s state convention in Rochester. I was traveling last week and didn’t watch the debate for the first time until Tuesday. I watched it three times this week, looking for some spark of energy, some sign of life in the Republican race for governor. I found none, as it was a non-event.
I reviewed Twitter, expecting to see a flury of public jockeying by the campaigns or their supporters. Nothing.
No press releases were sent out by the campaigns after the debate, boasting about the performance of their candidate. Nobody claimed victory, nobody really said anything. There were no debate parties, where supporters of a candidate gather to watch the event.It is almost like the debate didn’t happen.
The unmemorable debate was a true reflection of the candidates who participated.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won the GOP endorsement for governor, faced off against businessman Scott Honour, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and former Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers.
The format of the debate provided tremendous opportunities – the best to date – for the candidates to differentiate themselves to voters. TPT dedicated over 30 minutes for the Republicans candidates to offer a clear message as to why incumbent Governor Mark Dayton should be defeated and why any one of them would be the best option to replace him in November.
The hosts of the debate, Eric Eskola and Kathy Wurzer did everything they could to get the candidates to engage each other and offer significant contrast. Despite their valiant journalistic efforts, it didn’t work.
Wurzer accurately stated at the beginning of the debate that there wasn’t much policy difference between the candidates. Sitting on the couch together, the candidates looked like any random page of the latest Brooks Brothers catalogue. All four wore dark suits, with light colored dress shirts, and soft pastel ties.
As in episodes of Duck Dynasty, a viewer could easily mistake one of the candidates for another if their name wasn’t repeatedly displayed on the screen.
All four of the candidates missed the opportunity to respectfully engage in a substantive and lively debate, something Republicans have yet to experience this election cycle. It was a bland, boring, and uninspiring debate.
Zellers showed the most signs of life and had the best presentation of the four candidates. He seemed the most comfortable with the format and maximized every opportunity to speak. Zellers controlled the tempo of the debate more than any other candidate. But no compelling and consistent thesis was presented by Zellers as to why he was the best candidate against Dayton.
According to the most recent polling, Honour is the least known of the Republican candidates for governor. Honour could have used this debate to make a splash and generate much needed enthusiasm for his campaign. He didn’t.
As the only Republican candidate that hasn’t previously run for elected office, Honour has the ability to message against the other three candidates every time one of them highlights a problem that needs immediate attention. At some point in their current or previous legislative capacities, many of the problems cited by the other three candidates could have been addressed.
But Honour’s campaign has missed so many opportunities to offer a strong message as to why his candidacy is different. Honour looked physically uncomfortable during the debate. The vast amount of resources spent by the campaign, coupled with the time he’s been a candidate, built up the expectation that Honour would have had a stronger performance during the debate.
It seems Seifert wanted to occupy the “nice guy” role during the debate. Presented with some of the best opportunities to engage the other candidates, Seifert passed. He seemed unwilling to offer any direct critique, deferring the final decision to the “people.”
Seifert has been zigzagging across Minnesota since the state convention and maybe he was just tired. But as with Honour and Zellers, Seifert needed to make a stronger case for his candidacy.
Johnson’s message was directed more at Republican primary voters, than the broader voting population. Johnson touted his “very conservative voting record” during the debate, which represents an attempt to woo potential primary voters to his candidacy. But mentioning his “very conservative voting record” limits Johnson’s ability to win over the independent voters he claims he will in November.
While Johnson repeatedly mentions he’s a conservative who can win statewide, he was the only candidate on the Almanac couch that had previously lost a statewide race in the general election. His most recent electoral success has been running for a non-partisan office in a portion of Hennepin County.
Johnson ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2006, a race that is frequently missed in any published biography of Johnson. He received the least amount of votes of any Republican candidate running for constitutional office that year. I would be more willing to accept Johnson’s argument that he could attract independent voters if Johnson articulated why he lost in 2006 and how this campaign will be different. Johnson ran an anemic, uninspiring campaign in 2006 and pretending the campaign didn’t happen doesn’t address the problems his 2014 candidacy presents to Republicans as a statewide candidate.
Based on the current trajectory, the organizational advantage in the Republican primary has to be given to Johnson. But out of the four candidates that appeared on Almanac, Johnson is the only candidate continually attempting to remake himself. It will be his ultimate undoing as a candidate as this race moves closer to November.
For Republicans hoping for an exciting campaign for governor, it hasn’t arrived yet. Unlike in 2010, where numerous Democrats battled in the DFL primary for governor, the Republicans candidates seem afraid to engage. If Republican’s don’t spring to life soon, they may fall asleep and miss the race for governor.
Check back to politics.mn for additional analysis and information on the 2014 elections.