Candidates for governor signal willingness to run in primary
The first Republican to launch a campaign for Minnesota governor in 2014 immediately changed the dynamics for all other candidates who would follow him.
In April, Orono businessman Scott Honour became the first candidate openly seeking the office, promising to bring an outsider’s perspective to the job. But while Honour said he would seek the backing of the Republican Party for his campaign, he didn’t promise to abide by the endorsement process.
That’s a significant departure from the status quo in Minnesota Republican politics, which has long adhered to the tradition of standing by endorsed candidate in statewide races. DFLers have headed into contested primaries in statewide campaigns for years, even after endorsing a candidate. But time and time again, Republicans enforced an ethic built around backing their endorsees in the name of party unity and getting a head start on general election season.
Attitudes toward the endorsement are changing, however, after the last two statewide GOP-endorsed candidates considerably underperformed Republicans’ expectations. On top of that, the debt-straddled Republican Party of Minnesota has lost the financial clout it used to bring on behalf of its endorsed candidates.
Already two candidates for governor have said they likely will head straight to a primary election, practically guaranteeing the state’s first contested GOP primary for governor in 20 years.
“This is the first time where we’ve really seen candidates that are much more open to pursuing that dual track,” longtime GOP operative Gregg Peppin said. “I sense there’s an increasing number of people who aren’t willing to dismiss a candidate just because they say, ‘I’m going to go to the primary.’”
The origins of the GOP’s endorsement-centric system can be traced to the last time the party faced a gubernatorial primary election — 1994. That year former Republican state Rep. Allen Quist famously won the Republican endorsement for governor over Gov. Arne Carlson, who was known for his disdain for the activist base of the party. Nonetheless, Carlson, the first Republican governor in state history to run for re-election without being endorsed by his party, soundly defeated Quist in the primary.
The Republican Party was divided in the wake of the primary election. Activists who supported Quist’s campaign accused Chris Georgacas, party chairman at the time, of not doing enough to support their endorsed candidate. So TCF Bank Chairman Bill Cooper, who took over the party after Georgacas’ second term ended in 1997, made a pledge as party chairman to always support the endorsed candidate. Under his watch, GOP-endorsed candidates almost always went straight to the general election. Primaries were for the DFLers.
Tony Sutton continued that tradition when he became party chairman in 2009, but he brought with him his signature attack-dog style of politics. That was even more of a warning to Republicans who dared to challenge the endorsed candidate. The last two leaders of the party — Pat Shortridge and current Chairman Keith Downey — have not held such a hard line on the endorsement process, activists say.
“Bill Cooper made that pledge that they would support any endorsed candidate. From that point, it forced candidates to survive the endorsement or nothing at all,” GOP activist and former State Auditor Pat Anderson said. “There’s no more Bill Cooper and Tony Sutton running around saying we are going to spend a ton of money against you if you don’t have the endorsement.”
Republicans also got a renewed taste of the flaws in the endorsement process in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. In 2010, activists faced a choice between two conservative candidates for governor who differed radically in style and in attachments to the party apparatus. Then-Minority Leader Marty Seifert was the establishment GOP candidate looking for support from activists in a year when the Tea Party reigned supreme. Activists ultimately backed the charismatic, outspoken state Rep. Tom Emmer, who then narrowly lost the general election to now-Gov. Mark Dayton in a year when Republicans swept legislative races and took away a longtime DFL stronghold in the 8th Congressional District.
In 2012, activists were tasked with selecting a candidate to run against popular DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Again they were faced with two candidates who represented different factions within the party. Pete Hegseth, a war veteran and rising star in national political circles, had the backing of the establishment side of the party, but he was defeated for the endorsement by state Rep. Kurt Bills, who won overwhelming backing from the growing libertarian faction in the state GOP. Bills, who raised less than $1 million in his campaign to take on Klobuchar, lost that race by carrying only about 35 percent of the vote.
Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers is no stranger to the endorsement process; he’s won the backing of local activists in all six of his races for the state House. But in announcing his race for governor on a recent sunny Sunday in Maple Grove, Zellers said he wanted to give more than just activists a chance to support his candidacy.
“One of the candidates in this race … has indicated that he already plans to go to a primary,” Zellers said as he announced his campaign for governor. “I think it’s incumbent on me, on behalf of a lot of the folks here who won’t go to the convention, who have never been to a convention, to give them the opportunity to vote for me as well.”
Zellers hit on a growing complaint among activists about the process for selecting party delegates, who ultimately go on to vote for the endorsement. It often requires delegates to travel to multiple meetings around the state, sometimes on workdays. After the election last fall, GOP operative Ben Golnik opined in a Star Tribune op-ed piece that “endorsements muck it up for the parties.”
“The big question for people is: Should 1,200 Republican delegates be the ones who decide who our candidates are? I think, in the last two elections, we’ve seen that shouldn’t be the case,” Golnik told Capitol Report. “The reality in this day and age is to be competitive, you have to show an ability to raise money. If you have to spend 75 percent of your time going to delegate meetings, you’re probably not raising a ton of money.”
GOP activist Jennifer DeJournett, who heads the Voices of Conservative Women PAC, says that she has always valued the endorsement process but that she’s not opposed to primaries. That sentiment has been growing among activists, she said.
“Primaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It helps you practice your message and fix any bugs you might have before the general election,” she said. “I think there’s less visceral reaction [from activists] toward candidates who say they are going to run in a primary. With the party slowly recovering, it’s not the juggernaut it was a few years ago. I don’t think it’s a deal-killer like it would have been a few years ago.”
For some, endorsement is still key
There are those who have not yet lost faith in the old approach. Two gubernatorial candidates plan to seek and abide by the endorsement process, and they’ve been heavily working the traditional realm of activists to help propel them through the primary to the general election.
In announcing his campaign for governor, Republican state Sen. Dave Thompson said that he planned to seek the Republican Party’s endorsement and that he would abide by that decision, stressing the need for “unity.”
“One of my themes is going to be unity, unity of all Minnesotans, and of course, before we get there, unity of Republicans,” he said. “That endorsement is an important way of demonstrating that the people who built this party mean something to you.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who also plans to seek the endorsement and abide by that process, says the endorsed candidate will have the base behind them throughout the campaign.
“While some dismiss the endorsement, I do believe the endorsement will be extremely important in this race, because the Republican endorsement means the Republican candidate has the base energized and secure,” Johnson said. “I do believe that our best path to victory as Republicans is through the endorsement, as long as we can pick a candidate that has broad appeal to people who don’t consider themselves Republicans.”
State GOP Deputy Chair Kelly Fenton says the large GOP field for governor has energized activists more than ever. While not every candidate is promising to abide by the endorsement, she said, they are all seeking the backing of activists, and that has increased participation in the party process.
She also believes the party’s brand and endorsement power have not diminished, despite the financial troubles that have plagued them since December of 2011.
“The primary voter looks to the party for a stamp of approval. Whoever does get that endorsement will have a leg up in that primary,” Fenton said. “We do always support our endorsed candidate, and we are definitely going down the path to being really sound and strong again from a financial perspective. A lot can change between now and next August.”