Balls & Strikes: Why Jeff Johnson is losing and why he will lose

BallsnStrikesThe opportunity for Republicans to win the race for governor ended when Jeff Johnson became the Republican endorsed candidate for governor in June and when he later won the primary election in August. Johnson is losing the race for governor and he will lose the election two weeks from today because of his shortcomings as a candidate and the weakness of his campaign staff.

In the hours after the polls close on November 4, analysts, political pundits and many Republican activists will wonder what went wrong with Johnson’s candidacy. Rather than looking at the clear weaknesses in Johnson’s candidacy and his campaign operation, many of those closest to Johnson will point fingers at other people for not doing more to help Johnson win the election.

Republicans market themselves as the party of “personal responsibility.” For the Republican Party of Minnesota, that belief in “personal responsibility” should extend to their responsibility in endorsing a candidate for governor who could not win and to Johnson’s campaign staff for not putting their candidate in a position to win.

As Johnson says in his current television ad, “the buck stops with me.” The ultimate responsibility for losing the race for governor falls to Johnson. Johnson has shown to be the weakest candidate Republicans could have endorsed for governor in 2014. Johnson is not prepared to be candidate for governor, nor is he prepared to be elected governor. Johnson should not have run.

My concerns with Johnson’s candidacy for governor started with his previous campaign for statewide office in 2006. Johnson ran for attorney general and was soundly defeated by Lori Swanson. By every reasonable measurement to analyze a candidate’s performance, Johnson was a poor candidate for statewide office in 2006 and he has shown the same deficiencies in 2014. Johnson and his campaign team rarely mention his failed run for statewide office in 2006. Rather than showing how that experience would make his run for governor more successful, there has been an attempt to pretend it did not happen.

Johnson and his campaign staff have largely ignored any concerns from Republicans about his weaknesses as a statewide candidate. The only tactic used by Johnson and his campaign with any aggressiveness or consistency this election cycle has been to attack the messenger for any constructive criticism or analysis of Johnson’s candidacy. Johnson and his campaign staff have shown to be incredibly thin-skinned themselves, while concocting a myriad of false accusations to hurl toward anyone that would dare be critical of their campaign.

I’m a huge fan of the Minnesota Vikings. But like many die-hard supporters of the Vikings, the football season can be frustrating. I often listen to post-game analysis of the games and if the Vikings win or lose, the analysis of the game includes critiques of the Vikings’ performance. The people who call into the show want the Vikings to win every game and eventually the Super Bowl, even if they offer constructive criticism. I doubt members of the Vikings organization believe that all of the callers who criticize the Vikings are actually fans of the Green Bay Packers, secretly on the payroll of the team, and are making long-distance calls from Wisconsin.

But Johnson and his campaign have frequently shown a bizarre paranoia about the motives and agenda of anyone who has criticized their campaign. As someone who enjoys observing and writing about Minnesota politics from the sidelines, I have been on the receiving end of wild conspiracy theories about my analysis of Johnson’s candidacy.

Many of my fellow Republicans have complained that I have not written more posts attacking Governor Mark Dayton or other Democrats in Minnesota. The appeals are continuous, but my response is generally the same: I do not write for Minnesota Democrats Exposed anymore. The goal of all my posts is be thoughtful about politics and when I am critical, I ensure the criticism is constructive and productive.

But after I published my post calling Johnson’s “no clue” candidacy overJeffJohnsonHeadshot, the strongly worded requests that I turn my focus to Democrats intensified. It was clear from the people making the requests that Republicans in Minnesota are specifically frustrated with the lack of messaging against Dayton. I told the people I spoke with that it was the responsibility of the Republican Party of Minnesota and Johnson’s campaign to message against Dayton.

Johnson promised he would be a “scrappy fighter” and Republicans selected him to be the messenger against Dayton. But Johnson’s “scrappy fighter” image has been knocked out and he has not made any compelling argument to the voters of Minnesota about why Dayton does not deserve a second term as governor. Johnson and his campaign has adopted the persona of Jan Brady, rather than a fighter in a boxing ring.

I added that I could not remember the last time Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey or any party officer had any press conference about Dayton. While I am a Republican, the focus of my blog is to provide analysis and commentary on Minnesota politics. It is not my responsibility to push a message against Democrats in Minnesota, when candidates and party officers directly responsible for this basic campaign tactic fail to do it. I am an observer of Minnesota politics and I am watching the game from the sidelines. I am not wearing the uniform of any team.

In reviewing the posts on about Johnson’s campaign over the last year, many of the problems that have doomed his candidacy have been the focus of my writings. In one of my first posts for about the 2014 race for governor, I wrote extensively about Johnson’s candidacy.

From my post about Johnson [emphasis added]:

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.

As I detailed in this post in September of 2013, Johnson’s courting of Tea Party groups was a problem, but Johnson’s campaign did nothing to prepare for the criticism many predicted would come.

I wrote a post this July about the gubernatorial debate between the Republican candidates on TPT’s Almanac. I analyzed Johnson’s performance with this critique [emphasis added]:

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.

The Johnson make-over attempts have continued and his inability to portray himself with any authenticity has done the most damage to his candidacy. Johnson’s identity crisis has extended to masquerading himself as a coffee drinker [emphasis added] :

As a candidate, Johnson wants to be everything to everyone, and the level to which he will go to win support from a voter includes pretending he will drink the coffee he orders at a coffee shop. It is bizarre and I have never heard of a candidate creating confusion about whether they drink coffee or masquerading themselves as a coffee drinker.

The confusion Johnson has created about his coffee consumption extends to the double-talk and inconsistent stances he has taken on multiple issues during his campaign for governor.

Johnson has struggled to raise the resources to compete with Dayton’s campaign. In the months leading up to the endorsing convention, Johnson was adamant that his campaign was in the “best position financially” to beat Dayton than his Republican challengers. In a post from April, I wrote the low fundraising totals by some campaigns, including Johnson’s, should have some candidates reevaluating if they should stay in the race for governor [emphasis added]:

There was a time in politics, when a candidate made a decision about their ability to actually win, based on how much money the campaign had raised. Fundraising is a sign of organizational strength for a campaign and is a gauge to measure the electability of a candidate. Based on the first quarter fundraising reports, the time has come for some of the Republican candidates to consider ending their campaigns.

But Johnson stayed in the race for governor and he is on pace to raise less money than Tom Emmer did four years ago in his campaign against Dayton. The concerns about Johnson’s fundraising abilities were correct, but ignored and criticized by Johnson and his supporters.

Finally, Johnson’s candidacy has been hurt by the campaign team he assembled. In my analysis of the 2014 Republican State Convention in June, I wrote about what happens after campaigns win the endorsement [emphasis added]:

Two things happen to campaigns after they win the endorsement:

1. The campaigns regroup and adjust their strategy, recognizing that the endorsement is one step in the process to being elected.

2. The campaign acts like every decision they have made since announcing was correct and more forward with a flawed strategy, with cocky advisors.

It remains to be seen which choice Johnson’s campaign will take, but the next few weeks will be very interesting to watch.

Johnson’s campaign picked the second option. They embraced a flawed strategy that was implemented by a cocky collection of advisors that have never worked on a successful statewide campaign operation. Johnson’s campaign manager, David Gaither, did serve as Governor Pawlenty’s Chief of Staff in the governor’s official office and he was an outside volunteer advisor to the campaign.

One of the best examples of Gaither’s campaign instincts from 2006 comes from when he had a meeting one day before Election Day with staff. Gaither notified Pawlenty’s official staff that he had met with representatives of Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch’s official office and ensured an orderly transition, as Pawlenty would lose his campaign for re-election to Hatch. The next day, Pawlenty was re-elected to a second-term as governor.

The small team assembled to work on Johnson’s campaign were not picked because of any documented implementation of any successful statewide campaign operation or strategy. Johnson’s team was picked because they were personally close to Johnson, not because they were well-known campaign strategists. Many of Johnson’s campaign team have had success working on local races, but running a statewide campaign is much different.

The election is two weeks from today and barring something unforeseen, Governor Mark Dayton will be re-elected to a second term as governor and Jeff Johnson will lose. The blame game has already been started by Republicans and Johnson’s campaign but they should all stop and look in the mirror. After all, as Johnson said, the buck stops with him.

Balls & Strikes is a feature on focused on examining the tactics and strategies of Minnesota politics, politicians and candidates.


  1. Great analysis …. The blind leading the blind. Checklist campaigns lead by automotons can’t win. Were you ever contacted by these campaigns soliciting your help?

  2. If Johnson loses it’s because of articles like this. Who are you guys going to vote for the Legalize Marijuana party candidate?

  3. Johnson will lose because MN has become a state where there are more people wanting government to control their lives and be the solution to their problems than there are people who want to control their own lives and see government as the problem, simple as that.

  4. Outside analysis does not lose campaigns, bad candidates and bad staff lose winnable campaigns. As a voting alternate in Rochester, I did not support Johnson. I thought then that he could not win. I would have preferred a candidate with wider outstate appeal, Seifert. Dayton is a loser,but I cannot vote for Johnson. I therefore will vote for Nicollet. I don’t care for 3rd parties,but sometimes there is no choice. Rest of the Republican party gets my choice,

    Including Macdonald,over party hack Llllehaug for Supreme Court.

  5. Okie From Muskogee says:

    We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. And we don’t take our trips on LSD.

  6. Tea Party Potentate says:

    I voted for Johnson at the MNGOP Convention! I know he can win!

  7. Grumpy Old Man says:

    In my day we didn’t have elections. We just all punched and kicked each other in the face and tazed each other until there was only one of us standing. Then that guy was the Governor. Sure, it was painful, but we liked it! Johnson would never win Governor under the election system we had in my day either.

  8. King Arthur: I am your king.

    Woman: Well, I didn’t vote for you.

    King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.

    Woman: Well how’d you become king then?

    [Angelic music plays… ]

    King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.

    Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

  9. I disagree with you wholeheartedly. Did you not listen to the debates? Dayton is an embarrassment to this state. If the liberals would take the time to check out all of the candidates, instead of just waiting for their unions to tell them who to vote for, we would have a much more prosperous state. I’m sorry to report that I have no faith in the election process in Minnesota. I believe the “Franken cheating” proved that to all Minnesotans. A dominant liberal state, and he still had to cheat in order to get elected. Now he will get elected again. To all that voted for that little wiener I say, “You are getting just what you deserve”.

  10. It’s been a challenge to have the adult conversation about marijuana prohibition. Sure, some want it legal so they can smoke it, but from a government and society perspective the conversation is much more systematic. The minor use laws maintains demand and the major dealing laws generates felons – it wreaks havoc on many communities and empower the criminal element. It provides economic opportunities to people that are willing to be violent. We know the history of alcohol prohibition and then regulation and now marijuana has matured to this point.

    Regulating marijuana and allowing industrial hemp production is about our government taking responsibility for its current impacts on people and communities – not blaming an empowered criminal element for the type of market the government created.

  11. as far as I’m concerned this article made a lot of accusations without being very specific on the points they made. This guy has no clue about politics, clearly. If he did he’d give very specific examples to the claims he makes as to why Johnson is not going to win or why he shouldn’t win. Dayton caters to the rich. Dayton is just another typical politician who thinks that more government is better government. Government is the problem not the solution and Dayton is part of that problem.

  12. I guarantee that after the election Siefert, Zellers and Honour will be blamed because they ran in the primary. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The primary is the only reason Johnson got any media coverage this campaign. Johnson would be even less well known and even more obscure than he is now if there was no primary.

    As for anti Dayton messaging that’s the job of Johnson and the party. What should have happened is that every three weeks starting the day after the convention Downy needed to hold an anti Dayton press conference, each conference focusing on a specific Dayton shortcoming, of which there are many. Then Johnson should have followed those up with tri-weekly press conferences of his own. Each one laying out a specific policy position of his own. Downy’s press conferences would have raised doubts about Dayton and Johnson’s press conferences would have built the case for Johnson and raised his profile.

    If you can’t out fundraise your opponent one strategy is to garner as much earned/free media as possible. Our candidates and party are miserable failures at this.

  13. “Dayton is an embarrassment to this state.”

    Specifically how is Dayton an embarrassment to this state? I think this is Johnson’s biggest problem. Mark Dayton is a good governor. The state of the state is far better than it was four years ago. Whether that can be directly attributed to Dayton is debatable, of course. But he certainly didn’t hinder any progress.

  14. I have continuied in the Governor’s race till now as a write-in candidate in order to maintain a small stage from which to broadcast Veterans, Minnesotans I know ( thousands ) and my own opinions on national policies which have direct effect on the health, welfare and pocketbooks of Minnesota families and individuals. We are hopeful that our modest voice has encouraged some incumbents and some future representatives of the people to look at things political with eyes and minds more in tune with the peoples interests and wishes. The reason we are in this race at all, both myself and the members of the Veterans Party of America and the Veterans Party of Minnesota is that we have seen a disturbing trend at both the national and state level toward a denial of the American birthright to individual liberties and a precipitous slide of government toward a centralized command and control reminiscent of the changes which occurred during the creation of national socialism and communism. Mark Dayton as Governor, Al Franken as Senator and Rick Nolan as ith District Congressman are strong examples of Democrats who are not only allowing these changes with no questions or objections offered in behalf ot their constituents, but who consistently toe the party line, following the music as it is scored in Washington. Their dance to the federal tune has been deleterious to the past, present and future of every soul in America, let alone in our sovereign state. Whatever Jeff Johnson has done right or wrong in his campaign is not the main issue. The critical factor is whether we can afford another Obama, Dayton, Franken, Nolan term of office. We cannot. One example: We have just found that the Obama Veterans Administration knew of the phony recordkeeping to hide patient delays at the Phoenix VA Hospital at the inception of the Obama Presidency. The report was kept secret through his entire first term and into his second when a cluster of veterans deaths opened up the current VA investigations and ( weak ) efforts at reform within the agency. Additionally we have the litany of scandals….IRS targeting, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Border Security, Illegal Immigration ( with the tacit encouragement of the bureaucracies designed to manage the problem ), Labor Participation Rates the lowest in decades, #EPA delays on pipelines, directly impacting Minnesota mining and farming and endangering uran areas with the pass through of over length tankar trains, the war on coal affecting Minnesota power plants…raising our energy costs….the list is endless….and is the result of trying to overlay central planning onto what has traditionally been a relatively healthy free market. Aside from the problem with his basic political orientation, Obama has appointed and loaded federal regulatory and action agencies with political cronies, rather than with people who have the background and skill to bee effective in the position…they are there to benefit the leader of a political apparatus and not the people… ( As witness the latest appointment…. of an Ebola Czar with no bacground in medicine, but plenty as a political operative ). The Veterans party which endorsed me and I started this campaign with t he objective of removing Obama acolytes in Minnesota….in partiular the politicians I have mentioned, but also to reduce the power and influence of the DFL Party which has become no more an arm of the Washington power brokers. We thought that almost any Republican nominee could beat Dayton, given the problems we see today, but it appears Jeff Johnson needs a little help. We can certainly sacrifice our egos to support his election. as the alternative is unthinkable. So…..we are asking anyone who supports us ( we ran just less than 4% in the primary ) to vote for Jeff Johnson, Governor….Mike McFadden, Senate….Stewart Mills, 8th District Congress and for the rest of the ballot…..for Pete’s sake, don’t vote for ANY Democrat.

  15. Your analysis is dead on Michael, but it is also reflective of how difficult ousting incumbents truly is. The correct strategy to do so always seems lost to most challengers. Historically those incumbents that do lose often fall prey to the political climate of the times more than any given campaign strategy of the challenger. 2010 and the Tea-Party movement is highly indicative of this.

  16. Marv Peterson says:

    I Dayton wins it’s because there are to many uninformed Democratic voters in Minnesota, and they are like sheep they just follow the Party. They can’t think for themselves. I know because I talk to many Democrats and they have no clue as to why Dayton or Franken should be reelected.

  17. Well done. I would add the ONLY candidate from the GOP running for governor who could have raised enough money to compete would have been Scott Honour. We need more well funded GOP candidates at every elected position to compete.

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