Balls & Strikes: GOP must throw out their campaign playbook

PoliticsMN_WEBSITELogoThe 2014 elections are over in Minnesota and the results have many people scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened. For Republicans, the results were mixed, as Republicans won control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, but lost every statewide race in Minnesota.

I spent more time than originally planned to write this post, as I talked with many Republicans and Democrats about what happened in Minnesota.

Coming into Election Day, many politicos predicted Republicans would make sizable gains in legislative seats. The results announced late Tuesday evening giving Republicans a majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives brought sunshine to a very cloudy day for Minnesota Republicans.

31AA combination of people and groups contributed to Republicans winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Representative Pat Garofalo, Representative Denny McNamara and many caucus campaign staffers and volunteers. The Minnesota Action Network and the Minnesota Jobs Coalition also spent tremendous resources in target districts to ensure Republican candidates prevailed.

While winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives is no small accomplishment, Republicans expected more wins on Tuesday and the overall election results were devastating to the long-term viability of the Republican Party in Minnesota.

The election results are a complete repudiation of how Republicans in Minnesota are selecting candidates for statewide office and running campaigns.

Republicans missed so many opportunities to win elections on Tuesday. Not one Republican endorsed candidate for statewide office was elected and therefore, the endorsement process of the Republican Party of Minnesota is dead.

The current endorsement process benefits weak candidates, rather then promoting the stronger. An endorsed Republican candidate for statewide office has not won since 2006 and the next opportunity will not come until 2018. If Republicans do not make substantial changes, they will cement their placement as a permanent minority political party in Minnesota.

JeffJohnsonHeadshotAs I predicted weeks ago, Jeff Johnson lost his campaign for governor. In one of the most read posts in the history of, I detailed the reasons I believed he would not win on Tuesday. As Johnson said in one of his final television ads, “the buck stops with me.” The ultimate responsibility for losing the race for governor falls to Johnson. Johnson was the weakest candidate Republicans could have endorsed for governor in 2014. Johnson was not prepared to be a candidate for governor, nor was he prepared to be elected governor. I’ll repeat it one more time: Johnson should not have run.

Governor Mark Dayton was announced the projected winner of the election within six minutes of the polls closing at 8PM on Tuesday night. The candidate who won in a recount election in 2010, won the election with over 50 percent of the vote, the first governor to achieve this accomplishment since Governor Arne Carlson in 1994 – 20 years ago. Dayton’s place in history will appear next to names like Humphrey, Freeman and Mondale.

In the closing weeks of the race for governor, the Republican Party of Minnesota and Jeff Johnson’s campaign attempted to smear Dayton with unfounded accusations about his health. Johnson, who tried to claim he was the “nice guy” running for governor, joined in on the school yard taunts, saying “I don’t think he is competent to be governor. I don’t think he has the capacity to handle such a big job.”

official_daytonWith their candidate for governor losing in the polls, Republicans released a television advertisement with the picture of a 4-year-old murdered boy and attempted to blame Dayton for the death. Many questions remain about who produced the advertisement, and the involvement of Johnson’s campaign in the production of the advertisement is very likely.

In the last 48 hours before the polls opened, Republicans then released radio and print advertisements which claimed Dayton was not ready to deal with Ebola. In the radio advertisement by the Republican Party of Minnesota, a woman said “I don’t want my family put at risk. And if Ebola comes here, I just can’t trust Dayton as governor.” Republicans ignored the fact that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who had visited Minnesota weeks earlier to campaign for Johnson & Mike McFadden, later praised Dayton for his plan for dealing with the potential spread of Ebola.

Dayton’s response to being blamed for the death of a 4-year-old boy and for putting Minnesotans at risk to Ebola was very perfect – a textbook example of how to respond to cheap insults. I can think of numerous candidates and elected officials that would come unhinged if they were attacked in campaign advertisements like Dayton was in the final days of the campaign. Dayton offered a measured and very gubernatorial response.

Republicans completely miscalculated how to run a campaign against Dayton. As I said on the radio yesterday, Dayton is a brand in Minnesota and he is very well liked across the state. Dayton was a much stronger candidate for re-election than Republicans expected, but if they would have focused on policy instead of attacking him personally, they would have been more successful on Election Day.

After reviewing the election results, I do not think Republicans in Minnesota could have fielded a candidate with the organization needed to defeat Dayton. His campaign was very strong and Republicans never had a chance against him. The race for governor was over before it even started.

Franken-071009-18449 0003U.S. Senator Al Franken went from being elected by 312 votes in 2008 to winning with over 1 million votes – the only statewide candidate to reach this total. Franken’s campaign operation was a well-oiled machine and was brilliantly executed. The most recent fundraising totals show Franken raised over $20 million for his re-election and the campaign used the money very wisely. Mike McFadden’s campaign needed more resources to keep this race competitive, but he was the strongest of the Republican candidates who ran for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota.

If Republicans had endorsed any of the other candidates for the U.S. Senate, Franken’s campaign operation would have diminished any chance of Republicans winning control of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Franken’s campaign strategy of initially ignoring McFadden was a bold move, which worked. But McFadden’s campaign kept Franken focused on Minnesota and if they would have given up like many Republican candidates seemed to do, Franken would have been helpful to Democrats across the country in their goal of keeping control of the U.S. Senate.

McFaddenHeadshotMcFadden and his campaign kept working, up until the polls finally closed. In the closing weeks and days of the election, many Republican candidates were nearly invisible on the campaign trail. McFadden’s campaign was relentless in generating earned-media and McFadden offered the most detailed policy proposals of any Republican candidate running in Minnesota.

I was impressed by the decision from McFadden’s campaign to replay one of his debates with Franken. McFadden was the “scrappy fighter” for Republicans in Minnesota and the hard work of his campaign staff wasn’t reflected in the election results.

McFadden has a future in Minnesota politics and many candidates have lost campaigns, only to run for another office and win. I’ve learned more from the campaigns I worked on and lost, then from the campaigns that were victorious. I hope McFadden gives thought to running for statewide office again in 2018, because I believe he has tremendous potential.

For the Republican Party of Minnesota, they “really need to throw the playbook out.A new playbook for Republicans must be written, but not by authors who oversaw the 2014 elections.

After the Primary Election in August, I wrote a post which said the results showed “clear warning signs for the Republicans in Minnesota.” Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey called the GOTV operations in 2014 unprecedented, but their efforts turned out less votes for Republican candidates than in 2010.

DowneyMartinRepublican candidates, staffers and party leaders who boasted about and implemented the GOTV efforts in 2014 either did not see the warning signs, or chose to ignore them. An overhaul of party operations is needed, as there was a wave election for Republicans across the country, but Democrats in Minnesota did a phenomenal job of building a dam to protect their candidates.

In the final days of the 2014 elections and while Downey was making phone calls with a little dogMinnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin was holding numerous press conferences and traveling the state to boost the turnout for Democrats. The pictures to the left are symbolic of how the two party chairman viewed their roles this election cycle.

The Democrats simply out-worked the Republicans in Minnesota, including their party chairman.

Based on polling from the Republican Party of Minnesota, Dan Severson had the best opportunity to win on election night in his race to become the next Secretary of State from Minnesota. The poll showed Severson with a two-point lead over Representative Steve Simon, the DFL endorsed candidate for Secretary of State. But the leadership of the Republican Party of Minnesota withheld releasing the positive poll information about Severson because Johnson was down “double digits” to Dayton in the same poll.

Martin was active in the final week of the election and aggressively messaged against Severson. Downey did not realize the missed opportunity until election night, when he expressed regret to Severson’s campaign for not doing more to help Severson win.

Over the next days and weeks, Republicans need to rethink their entire approach to recruiting, selecting and endorsing candidates for statewide office and how the campaigns will be run. The Democrats had more wins on Election Day, because Republicans in Minnesota made it nearly impossible for them to lose.

As always, please check back to for additional analysis on the 2014 election.

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


  1. Some thoughts. (From a DFLer who enjoys your site because of the very thoughtful analysis here.)

    First, Franken wasn’t the only candidate to get a million; Lori Swanson did too.

    Second, pundits on both sides often predict the death of their parties when faced with big losses. Just as Democrats stayed home nationally, maybe the reverse happened here and Republicans in Minnesota stayed home. Sometimes we don’t take voter turnout into consideration when assessing the relative strength or weakness of our party.

    Third, Minnesota is doing very well right now. As you said, the governor race was over before it started. It was always going to be tough for the GOP to cast any blame on Dayton with the economic numbers the way they are. There is no doubt whatsoever that we are in a better place than in 2010. Whether those gains can be attributed to Dayton is of course debatable, but you certainly can’t say that he’s been an impediment.

    Fourth, Franken is a stronger candidate and better senator than any Republican would dream of giving him credit for. They tried to paint him as just a comedian, but he’s proved them dead wrong, and the election showed it.

    Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, if the MNGOP has any shot of winning anything in 2016, they will have to work with Dayton. This means substantial compromise, not just resting on their tried-and-true predictable agenda of tax cuts for the rich; cuts to education; cuts to human services; and then obstructing when they don’t get their way. Dayton has implemented the very opposite of those policies, and Minnesota is clearly better for it, as evidenced by the election results. The DFL’s policies have worked; in my opinion, that is likely far more ominous for the GOP than any weaknesses in their political playbook.

  2. McFadden for Governor does have a nice ring to it.

  3. Another thought says:

    One thing I hope is considered with Reed doing anything in the MN GOP is to stop endorsing judicial candidates.

    The endorsement of Michelle MacDonald, and all the subsequent drama, was at times a significant distraction from the campaign. And sadly, even though she is now convicted she did come very close to winning. A lot closer than anybody would’ve given a credit for.if she had one you could imagine the continuing blackeye that she would end up giving to the endorsement process.

    I would also hope that the MN GOP take a positive view of the Quie Commission which would change the way judicial candidates are elected. And give voters the opportunity to remove Bad judges.

  4. Tea Party Potentate says:

    A majority of Minnesotans love free shit from the government. Throwing out a playbook isn’t going to change that. Minnesota is now solidly a welfare state. Corporate and personal welfare and Wilfare.

  5. The fact that Michelle MacDonald took a larger share of the vote than any other endorsed statewide candidate should scare the hell out of the MNGOP (and frankly, the entire judicial system). Anti-incumbent sentiment performed stronger than the “R” and millions of campaign dollars spent on ads and GOTV.

  6. 1. If Jeff Johnson was a horrible candidate, which Republican would have been better? Scott Honour? Marty Seifert? Kurt Zellers? Dave Thompson? Should the MNGOP have drafted someone like Erik Paulsen or John Kline?

    2. If Downey had released the poll favoring Severson but showing Johnson losing, would the MNGOP have gotten a higher turnout in outstate Minnesota? Should Downey have been honest with the base, saying we can win the MN Sec. of State Office, but we are going to lose the Governor’s race? That does not sound encouraging.

  7. Interesting post, but your analysis belies the actual election results. You trashed Jeff Johnson for being a horrible candidate and praised McFadden for being a good candidate. But the fact remains that Johnson performed better against Dayton than McFadden did against Franken even, as you mentioned, though Dayton is a much more popular politician in MN than Franken.

    I also note that Johnson not only won endorsement but he also won the first competitive statewide primary our party has seen since the Carlson/Quist primary in 1994. Johnson did not make the kind of mistakes in this race that Emmer made in 2010 when he nearly defeated Dayton.

    Are there problems in the state GOP? Yes. I’ve been for competitive primaries going back several years when Michael Brodkorb was Deputy Chair of the Party and strongly for the endorsement process. Precinct caucuses are obsolete. Nobody attends them. Few delegates attend their BPOU conventions and even fewer attend House and Senate district endorsing conventions. I disagree that another candidate would have done worse against Franken or that the Senate race even played a role in the legislative races. It’s very obvious that we are seeing both DFL and GOP votes concentrated more and more along population lines with rural areas increasingly Republican and urban areas even more DFL. We were able to pick up those rural and suburban legislative seats to take control of the House even though the metro went strongly for Franken.

    Finally, I’d like to contrast the way the DFL portrayed McFadden and Mills with the way the GOP failed to take after Dayton and Franken. It’s obvious that their attacks against McFadden and Mills as fat cat millionaires worked. Where were the Republican ads against Mark Dayton? Mark Dayton is a trust fund child who has never worked outside of being a career politician. He’s spent tens of millions of dollars to buy a U.S. Senate seat in 2000 and the Governor’s race in 2010. He didn’t have to spend his own money this election. He has never created a job outside of campaign staff and state employees. And his children are the great-grandchildren of John D. Rockefeller. Why didn’t the GOP attack Dayton? Similarly, there were no attacks on Franken for being out of touch with most Minnesotans. The closest were ads saying he voted with Obama 97% of the time but nothing about Franken making all of his fortune out of state and doing nothing in MN besides being a politician.

    The GOP state party is not strong and not creative or smart to get out of the hole we’re in.

  8. I don’t see how you can say the endorsement process is dead when the endorsed candidates in question won the primary. Correlation is not causation. If it was, you could just as easily say that the primary is dead because no MNGOP primary victor has won statewide in a given period.

    These loses had far more to do with the disparity in political machinery between the two coalitions – Republican and Democrat – then they had to do with the candidates. Mark Dayton and Al Franken are completely interchangeable with any random liberal. They won because they were backed, not because of who they are. Republican donors, activists, and outside groups sat it out.

    • Johnson only won with a 50,000 vote plurality.
      The combined votes of all GOP Primary candidates in 2014 would have been eclipsed by Arne Carlson’s 1994 primary vote total, and Carlson wasn’t endorsed in 1994.
      An Arne Carlson type candidate would have been swept into office, and the narrative would’ve been different.

    • A different Mike says:

      While it is true that the endorsed candidate won the primary, they only won with a plurality of the vote. And even then, the quantity of votes was hardly a victory.

      Out of 184,110 total votes:
      Jeff Johnson had 30.33% or 55,836 votes.
      Kurt Zellers had 23.92% or 44,046 votes.
      Marty Seifert had 21.1% or 38,851 votes.
      Scott Honour had 20.84% or 38,377 votes.
      Merrill Anderson had 3.8% or 7,000 votes.

      Johnson didn’t even get 1/3rd of the votes.

      And MB indirectly makes a good point. He states, the last GOP Governor candidate who has won with more than 50% of the vote was Arne Carlson. However, Carlson was not the endorsed candidate in 1994 (or 1990 for that matter). The last MN GOP Endorsed Governor candidate to win with more than 50% of the vote was Al Quie in 1978.

      On the DFL side, the track record isn’t any better. The endorsed candidate for governor (until this election) hasn’t won with 50% or more of the vote since 1986. And even then, in 1982, Rudy Perpich ran against the DFL endorsed candidate Warren Spannus and won in the DFL primary.

      So, the fact remains that it is an outlier for an endorsed candidate from either major party to get more than 50% of the vote in the general election.
      If these facts do not point to broken, I don’t know what does.

    • Hello Walter,

      The endorsement process gives immediate credibility to a candidate before the primary. Most primary voters, by default, commit to their “endorsed” party candidate because it is what the party recommends they do. Although, under Downey, the parties endorsement “recommendation” has turned into more of an endorsement “demand.” Hopefully the results of this last election force the Republican party to change it’s perspective on how to rally against the D’s in 2016.

  9. One additional comment about Chris Christie. Rush is right, we need to quarantine the guy the week or so before the election. I did not hear that he praised Dayton for his response to Ebola. Am I the only person who finds it outrageous that the head of the RGA is praising a Democrat Governor who is up for election just days before the election? Things like this disqualify Christie as a GOP presidential contender.

  10. Biggy Johnson says:

    Here is the ting the GOP needs to be politically active all year round just like the democrats and they need to make this about the issues. As a for instance when I am in the iron range many of the people are voting democrat because that’s what their family did not because of the party’s view an the issues. Most of Minnesota is actually right wing but they dont vote that way it is odd

  11. As a Republican activist I intend to use the next two years to talk within the party about the political compass (see ). As a newly retired statistician and data miner, I will have time to find and understand the research and I expect to be able to argue, based on facts rather than wishes, that Minnesota Republicans are far enough away from the Romneys and the Obamas (upper right quadrant statists) that we cannot operate within Minnesota using National GOP methods. It was hard to vote party this year in the shadow of national headlines that suggested we are the party of creationism, bigotry and social conservatives. This might be true on the coasts, where the news is made, but I think it is not reflective of the Minnesota voter.

  12. Pingback: Daily Brief: Friday, Nov. 7th, 2014 - DFL SD 48 ~ Democrats of Southern Minnetonka and Eden Prairie

  13. BW brings up a very interesting point.
    Arne Carlson was very popular in this state, except with the far right base of his own party.
    It’s those same people that are over represented in the endorsement process and on the state party leadership positions.
    It’s time for the more conservative folks in the GOP to take their medicine and admit that a moderate GOPer is the only chance in hell they’ve got at a statewide race.
    Get a moderate in the governors mansion and a more conservative state house and you can get some of what you want.

    The rural/metro divide is a alive and well. We also need a party leader that knows how to navigate both.

  14. I am not defending Jeff Johnson, but Mike McFadden had more money and ran against a weaker candidate (by your admission). He lost by twice as much as Johnson. Your analysis fits the reality that you want to see. They were both weak candidates, but the people learned about McFadden and Franken’s support grew. He made Franken look good by comparison. Between the two of them they cancelled out the national wave in MN.

  15. Mcfadden ran a good campaign? Nonsense, his was one of the dumbest campaigns I’ve ever seen.

    First he adopted a focus of attack that clearly had no resonance with MN voters at large, the whole 97% thing. He didn’t seem to realize he was running for statewide office in a state that voted for Obama instead of another republican nomination of some kind. As the 97% argument fizzled, he doubled down on it, and spend a good chunk of his campaign money on those tv and radio ads. And where could he have gone with that anyways? What was HIS promise? To vote AGAINST Obama 97% of the time? 75%? 50%? What?

    Then we had groingate, and that weird ad where he bragged about taking out his own kids stitches as if impudent self administered medical care qualifies a guy for the US Senate.

    Then he released a series of inexplicable ads complaining about debates… when 3 debates were scheduled and everyone knew it. These ads were not only duds, but self obsoleting duds, the moment they started their first debate those ads became useless. I’ve never seen a candidate waste money on ads that become useless halfway through the campaign. And of course when he finally got a chance to ask Franken his big questions it didn’t seem to have occurred to him that Franken might actually have good answers, so his debate performances were a dud.

    Then there was that weird ad with McFadden launching a boat, and finally when all else failed we were expected to vote for McFadden because his teenage daughter says he’s a great guy.

    Meanwhile he didn’t present a single coherent policy position other than getting us on the right track… with a bunch of ideas and plans that have already been tried and failed. I’m pretty sure the 80s called and asked for their campaign back. And I’m also pretty sure Rudy Boschwitz called and asked for his wardrobe back.

    It was easy to paint McFadden as a wealthy out of touch over-paid financial executive because his campaign reinforced that image very powerfully.

    Franken and Klobuchar are the strongest democrats in MN, more than likely no republican can beat Franken or Klobuchar. But McFadden’s campaign is abject lesson in how to lose, and the republicans need to learn that lesson.

    Dayton on the other hand could have been beaten, he’s not a strong candidate for a variety of reasons. The problem is that republicans are still pitching magic as their primary agenda, magic audits that materialize revenue, magic tax cuts, and magic spending cuts, magic values, etc. Republicans were all going to roll up their sleeves… but roll up their sleeves and do what? They still run on a promise of doing nothing and letting someone else solve our problems i.e. getting out of the way and shrinking government involvement in everything.

    We’ll see now what house republicans do, will they actually work with democrats to move the state forward, or will they come up with a list issues they want to shut the government down over? The last few years the republican notion of compromise seems to be give us our way or we’ll shut the government down. If they do that again they lose again in 16.

    • You forgot to mention McFadden’s “Contract”
      Visiting all 87 counties, while okay, spending a day in a county is nice, not sure it really moved many people to vote for him.
      Quarterly town hall meetings, “open to the public and the press”, He should’ve started announcing and having these months in advance of the election, to walk the talk.
      Won’t seek re-election if he votes 97% of the time with a president or party. Sorry, but that whole 97% thing, as you point out was meaningless, it didn’t resonate with anyone except those who were going to be anti-Franken votes already.
      The first 100 days pledges were hollow, author or co-author bills are easy to do, getting them passed requires working with your other Senators.
      And so on…
      Meanwhile, no where in the contract was anything about reforming Social Security or Medicare. The only thing he would say about these are that benefits for those who are on or nearly on these programs would not change, but that he didn’t support raising taxes to fix it either. Reading between the lines, the only thing remaining was means-testing or wholesale cutbacks in SS benefits for future recipients.

      McFadden just couldn’t find an issue to bring Franken down to earth with the electorate.

  16. “Throw out the old playbook.” Depends on what you mean by that.

    All the Republicans need to do is pick candidates who are liberty leaning and who know how to explain the reasons behind their positions.

    Add up the votes. If the Republican candidates would have gotten the libertarian vote and just a little of the independents, they would have swept the state.

    They didn’t get the libertarian/indepedent vote because Johnson does not have libertarian or indepenent views, much less thoughts. He tries to put together an image that appeals to everyone. But in so doing he offends more. Nobody likes a phony. Johnson didn’t vote for Ron Raul in 2012, but then he attends the liberty convention and tries to be a tea partier, asking for an endorsement that he later backpedals from. Then he says he’s against a minimum wage hike, but can’t explain why its bad. Nor can he even explain what the middle class means, even though he says he wants to be the governor for that subsector. The thing about libertarians is that that they understand economics, so they can explain their positions to laymen. Heck Dayton, for all practical purposes, is a communist, but people vote for him nonetheless because he doesn’t contradict himself– it doesn’t matter that his views are wholly misplaced or completely erroneous.

    Everything said above applies to McFadden as well, even more so. McFadden knows nothing about politics. Like Johnson, he’s a TV educated guy. That’s why he campaigned on Franken’s lack of concern for Ebola. If you took a poll, about 0.001% would say Ebola was of any concern for them. Yet McFadden and Johnson made it an issue in their campaigns. Why? because they watch too much television. If not for TV, they would not have even knew it existed (assuming it does).

  17. Furious Styles says:

    Bob Stevens. I could not have said it better myself had I tried. Your remonstrances should be hung on the doors of MNGOP and MN GOP Pols alike ….

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