Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson and U.S. Senate candidate Julianne Ortman bested their Republican rivals on Saturday in an early test of support among GOP activists.
Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, and Ortman, a state senator from Chanhassen, placed first in candidate straw polls cast by Republican Party of Minnesota activists gathered at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Johnson beat four other Republican candidates for governor with 35 percent of the vote, with state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville coming in second at 27 percent.
Johnson stressed the need to appeal to moderate and independent voters in the general election in order to beat incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton. “Winning is about choosing a candidate who can make a personal connection with everyday Minnesotans, and who can share a positive and compelling and relevant vision to voters,” Johnson told the crowd. “Not just Republican voters, but all voters in the state.”
Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert placed third in the poll, despite the fact that he hasn’t said whether he will run for governor next fall. Seifert, who failed to get the GOP endorsement for governor in 2010, earned 18 percent of the vote in the straw poll after a supporter organized a last-minute write-in campaign on social media. Seifert said he was humbled and surprised by the result. He will announce his plans sometime around the Thanksgiving holiday.
Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers took fourth in the straw poll with 7.6 percent of the vote, Hibbing schoolteacher Rob Farnsworth finished at 6.4 percent, and Orono businessman Scott Honour placed last with only 3.9 percent. Johnson and Thompson were expected to place high in the poll of activists, as they are the only candidates who have promised to abide by their endorsement next spring. Both Zellers and Honour have kept the door open to a primary run.
In the race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Al Franken, Ortman beat five other candidates with about 37 percent of the vote. Minneapolis financial executive Mike McFadden finished in second place with 21.6 percent of the vote, while longtime activist Harold Shudlick took third (12.7 percent), St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg came in fourth (12.4 percent), state Rep. Jim Abeler took fifth (11.2 percent), and activist Monti Moreno came in last (2.5 percent). There were 394 votes cast in the contest.
“Al Franken is vulnerable, that seat is vulnerable, and we can take it back. This seat is in play,” Ortman told the crowd. “I’ve had some tough races, and I’ve won, and I can bring the fight to Al Franken.”
The straw poll result is an early barometer for candidates seeking the GOP endorsement, but not all candidates who have won the straw poll in the past have gone on to be the party’s endorsee. Activists will meet on May 15-17 to officially endorse a candidate in both statewide races.
The meeting was also a time for party leaders to update rank-and-file activists on the state of the Minnesota GOP. The party has been in debt since late 2011, when then-GOP Party chairman Tony Sutton resigned suddenly and left in his wake more than $2 million in unpaid bills from the 2010 election. Party chairman Keith Downey, who was elected to the position in April, said the party is restructuring faster than he anticipated.
“We are once again able to be strategic,” Downey said. “We are on target to be an asset to our candidates in 2014.”
Downey said the party has raised about $1.2 million since September. The party’s debt currently stands at about $1.3 million, down by about $630,000 since the end of 2011. Some of that money has gone toward building a base for the 2014 campaign, Downey said, including a summer “voter identification blitz” that helped add 180,000 to GOP voter lists.
The GOP is also moving out of its St. Paul headquarters, said party treasurer Bron Scherer. The new five-year lease will be about $10,000 a month, Scherer said. That’s cheaper than the nearly $15,000 the party pays for its space now. Scherer wouldn’t specify the location of the new office space.
Downey and other leaders also stressed party unity before a group that has been plagued by internal divisions. “We lost our focus on the people. We’ve spent more time arguing amongst ourselves,” Downey said. “We have let the demonizing rhetoric of the left define us, and I am here to tell you today, no more.”
Republicans also elected a new representative to the Republican National Committee on Saturday. Johnson stepped aside from the position to run for governor. Longtime GOP operative Chris Tiedeman, who got his start with the Minnesota College Republicans, beat activist Terry Flower for the position. Tiedeman won about 54 percent of the vote.