Her entry could transform field dominated by metro-area men
One potential 800-pound gorilla in the Republican field for Minnesota governor hasn’t even officially thrown her hat in the ring yet.
That would be state Sen. Julie Rosen, the four-term lawmaker from Fairmont who was the face of 2012’s successful legislative push for a new Vikings stadium. She boasts strong ties to the state’s business community, which backed the stadium project, and is a go-to Republican legislator on health care issues. It doesn’t hurt that her personal wealth probably matches or exceeds that of incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, heir to his family’s department store fortune. This week, Rosen said she is still considering a run for the office and plans to announce her decision “soon.” “I think I could bring a very sensible, reasonable voice to the governor’s office,” she said.
All signs point to Rosen’s entry into the race, making her the first rural and first female candidate in the mix, two other qualities that GOP operatives say make her an attractive option for governor. “For a Republican to win against Dayton, that Republican is going to have to do very well in rural Minnesota,” former GOP House Speaker Steve Sviggum said. “It would be a good contrast to [Dayton] to have a woman candidate from outstate Minnesota.”
The field of announced candidates swelled to four this week, with the race’s first two GOP legislators joining the mix – former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, of Maple Grove, and Lakeville Sen. Dave Thompson. They join already-announced Republican candidates Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and Orono businessman Scott Honour in the field. Many more are considering the race, including former House Majority Leader Matt Dean, Senate Minority Leader David Hann and former House Minority Leader and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert.
Rosen isn’t deterred by the large and growing field of Republican candidates. “That’s part of the fun – that’s how it works,” Rosen said. “Everyone should have a chance, and let the best man win.”
Rosen’s biggest hurdle as a GOP gubernatorial candidate would likely come at the party’s springtime endorsing convention – historically a conservative litmus test for candidates. Rosen is perceived by many activists as a moderate Republican for her work on issues like the stadium.
Self-financing an option
But it’s unclear whether Rosen would seek the party’s backing, should she get in the race. She would have enough wealth to travel to a primary election on her own, and she wouldn’t be the only candidate thinking along those lines. Honour and Zellers have said they will seek the GOP endorsement, but won’t close the door on a primary run. It likely means that, for the first time in about two decades, Republicans in Minnesota will see a competitive primary election for governor.
Honour ran a successful investment firm and bundled cash for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Last week he announced that former Republican Party chairman and TCF Bank CEO Bill Cooper will chair his finance committee, solidifying his financial power in the GOP contest.
In a Sunday gubernatorial announcement in his hometown of Maple Grove, Zellers also said he was ready to go to a primary election if he wasn’t endorsed by activists. Zellers’ move was surprising to some, as he lacks the personal wealth of Rosen or Honour to finance an expensive primary campaign.
“I consider myself an underdog candidate because of that,” Zellers said. But the six-term lawmaker and former communications professional touted his work over the years raising money for the House Republican caucus all around the state. “One thing I can promise you is I won’t be outworked.”
Zellers will also carry political baggage from his time as speaker, particularly a strange interlude near the end of the 2012 session in which he said he wanted the Vikings stadium bill to pass but would not vote for it. “You don’t get to speak on behalf of what you personally believe, it’s what’s best for the caucus,” Zellers said of his time as speaker. “Sometimes that’s maybe not what your personal beliefs are, but something you have to do as a leader in the caucus.”
Heading into an endorsement contest, the favorites appear to be Johnson and Thompson, both of whom promised to abide by the process. Johnson holds a seat on the Republican National Committee, a position he won over 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Thompson, first elected to the state Senate in 2010, made a name for himself as a conservative talk radio host and later as a supporter of a right-to-work constitutional amendment. In announcing his campaign for governor on Wednesday, Thompson said he would “absolutely” seek and abide by the GOP endorsement, stressing the need for party 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.”
Primary more broadly accepted?
GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who is volunteering for Johnson’s campaign, said candidates who promise to abide by the endorsement will automatically get a leg up in the process because some activists will refuse to vote for any candidate that may not honor the party’s wishes. But Peppin acknowledges that the share of activists who feel that way may be shrinking after the party’s last two endorsed statewide candidates – Emmer in 2010 and Kurt Bills for U.S. Senate in 2012 – dramatically underperformed Republicans’ expectations.
“This is the first time where we’ve really seen candidates that are much more open to pursuing that dual track,” 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.’”