More than a year removed from Election Day, the four announced Republican candidates for Minnesota governor made their first joint appearance on the debate stage Thursday, seeking to sharpen their emergent talking points and distinguish themselves in the growing field to take on Gov. Mark Dayton.
Republican candidates Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner, Orono businessman Scott Honour, state Sen. Dave Thompson and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers gathered in front of about 150 Republicans packed into the Mermaid Event Center in Mounds View Thursday night. While the candidates’ positions on issues rarely diverged significantly, each spent the night testing campaign slogans, themes and personal anecdotes on the GOP crowd.
Some attendees arrived more than an hour before the event started for drinks and a chance to meet the candidates one-on-one. Current and former GOP lawmakers dotted the crowd, as well as future candidates for office hoping to work the room. Sixth Congressional District candidate Phil Krinkie, standing next to a white truck covered in Krinkie for Congress signs, greeted attendees in the parking lot on their way in to the debate.
The event’s host, former gubernatorial candidate Sue Jeffers, set the tone of the evening by stressing the importance of the 2014 election for the Republican Party of Minnesota, which is still recovering from lingering debt and a bruising 2012 cycle that saw them lose majorities in both chambers of the Legislature as well as a congressional seat in northeastern Minnesota.
“We are having a battle for the soul of the Republican Party of Minnesota,” Jeffers said. “We are not going to settle; we are going to demand bold leadership.”
In their opening statements, each candidate described himself as an everyday, middle class Minnesotan with humble beginnings. Thompson talked about his upbringing in Little Falls and his time in the public school system, while Zellers brought up the time he spent on a family farm in his early years. Political newcomer Honour said he shoveled horse manure growing up, which — he added — could “come in handy” in St. Paul.
Honour stressed his business background, regularly citing the need to “reset” the state budget. Honour returned to Minnesota last year after serving as senior managing director of the Gores Group, an international investment firm that buys and rehabs failing companies. He also framed himself as the “political outsider” in the race, even distancing himself from his work fundraising for the GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney last fall.
“My personal story, I think, is relevant, the fact that I came from a humble background,” Honour said. “I understand what troubles people have. I understand how a tough economy affects lives and I can personally relate to people. In many ways Mitt didn’t do any of those things. He didn’t tell his personal stories and he didn’t embrace his success. I will do that, and I think those lessons are quite relevant to this race.”
Johnson touted his time serving in the state House and his current position as a fiscal conservative on the Hennepin County Board. Johnson served in the GOP-controlled House during a time when Democrats controlled the state Senate. He said he spent that time working across the aisle to pass legislation. “My goal is not just to fight for things and lose every time,” he said. “I actually want to accomplish things every once in a while.”
Thompson and Zellers, the two state legislators in the field, both talked about their skills as communicators. Thompson spent years in talk radio before getting into politics, and Zellers had an early career in PR. “My career in the media, I hope, has helped me to get a really good understanding of what I believe and how to explain what I believe in a way that is acceptable to broad groups of people,” Thompson said. “November 14, we have to be 50 percent plus one to beat this governor.”
Throughout the night, Zellers stressed his experience as speaker of the House for two years, particularly his time negotiating with Dayton over the 2011 state budget. “You want somebody in this race… somebody who has gone in there and has sat toe-to-toe with this guy and won,” Zellers said. “That is one qualification I have that unfortunately my colleagues do not.”
The biggest distinction between the candidates of the night came when moderator Walter Hudson asked if they would seek and abide by the GOP endorsement for governor. Johnson and Thompson, who have both promised to abide by the endorsement, got big rounds of applause when they spoke of party unity. “I guarantee you, if we have a nasty primary ballot in August…we will lose Republicans,” Johnson said.
While Honour said he plans to seek the endorsement, he said he will “decide at a later date whether we abide by the endorsement or not…. I do believe it’s important that we work on getting our message out to the broader electorate. I think the Republican Party is a bit behind the times — we saw that, I think, in the last election.”
In his most direct response of the night, Zellers made it clear he will head to an August primary if he doesn’t win the endorsement. “The decision has already been made for me,” Zellers said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that I can be the endorsed candidate, but also could win a primary election.”