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Johnson gubernatorial bid tries to unite disparate factions of GOP base

Briana Bierschbach//October 30, 2013

Johnson gubernatorial bid tries to unite disparate factions of GOP base

Briana Bierschbach//October 30, 2013

Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson on Saturday finished first among possible gubernatorial candidates in a nonbinding straw poll of 400 Republican Party activists at the party’s central committee meeting in Blaine. Johnson beat out four Republican rivals, picking up 35 percent of the vote. (Staff photo: Briana Bierschbach)

Straw poll win gives boost to his campaign for party’s endorsement

Jeff Johnson doesn’t fit the typical profile of a Republican candidate for major statewide office.

The former Minnesota House member from Plymouth, who is now serving his second term on the Hennepin County Board, doesn’t come directly from the Legislature, as many of the GOP’s most recent endorsed candidates have. He doesn’t boast private wealth or a long history embedded in the state’s business community. And he doesn’t align with any one faction of the Republican Party of Minnesota, at a time when factionalism has played a vital role in anointing candidates who captured the Tea Party ethos (2010 gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer) or boasted libertarian/Ron Paul-ite cachet (state Rep. Kurt Bills in the 2012 U.S. Senate race).

But at the GOP’s state central meeting in Blaine on Saturday, Johnson proved himself the most popular candidate among roughly 400 Republican Party activists in an early, nonbinding straw poll for the governor’s race. Johnson beat out four other Republican rivals with 35 percent of the vote, including libertarian and state Sen. Dave Thompson, who earned 27 percent of the vote, and last-minute write-in candidate Marty Seifert, who tallied 18 percent. He also buried former Speaker of the Minnesota House Kurt Zellers (8 percent), who likely has the most broad name recognition of all the candidates, and Orono businessman Scott Honour (4 percent), whose bid for governor is underwritten by personal wealth.

But Johnson’s appeal among activists has been building for years, most recently through his position as RNC committeeman and as one of the lead players in an audit of party finances after the sudden resignation of party chairman Tony Sutton in 2011. He also delivered a risky — but memorable — message at the contentious 2012 GOP endorsing convention, as the libertarian wing of the party dominated the contest, angering many long-time activists. “Just get over it,” Johnson told the warring crowd.

“I think those two things are defining moments for Jeff’s career,” said activist Scott Dutcher, who became a supporter of Johnson’s during his time serving on the state GOP executive committee. “It did rub some people the wrong the way, because you don’t say ‘get over it’ and not rub some people the wrong way. But it was the right message.”

The real contest, for Johnson at least, will come in May at the party’s official endorsing convention. Johnson and Thompson have bet it all on the endorsement, promising to abide by that decision, while Zellers and Honour have strongly signaled intentions to run in a primary, which would make it the first competitive GOP primary contest for the governor’s office in two decades. And while reverence for the Republican Party endorsement is still strong among the base — as evidenced by Johnson and Thompson’s performance in the straw poll — activists say attitudes about who should win their support is evolving after ideologues like Emmer and Bills suffered bruising defeats in the last two statewide races.

“Jeff represents the conservative brand in a way that’s appealing to a lot of people. He simply messages in a way that’s thoughtful and even-toned,” said longtime activist and attorney Andy Brehm, who hasn’t picked a gubernatorial candidate to support yet. He said he and other Republicans have tired of the firebrand rhetoric that has historically roused the base at endorsement time but torpedoed statewide election bids. “It’s that kind of stuff that I don’t have time for as a Republican. We’ve just been talking to ourselves instead of trying to appeal to other people.”

Credibility with the base

Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and studied economic s and political science at Concordia College before heading to Georgetown University Law School.

After college, Johnson practiced with several law firms and represented Cargill Inc. before making a successful run at a suburban state House seat in 2000. He rose into leadership roles after his first term, serving as assistant majority leader, chair of the Civil Law and Elections Committee and co-chair of the House Republican Campaign Committee. In 2006, Johnson left the House to launch a bid for attorney general, a race that — while unsuccessful — put him in front of GOP activists around the state.

His courting of the GOP base began in earnest while Johnson was preparing for the April 2011 vote for Republican National Committeeman against Emmer. Johnson called activists on the state central committee — many of whom were part of the group that picked him in the straw poll — and won that race on the first ballot, despite the fact that Emmer had been favored to win that contest.

Later that year, then-chairman Sutton resigned suddenly and left in his wake an unknown amount of unpaid party bills from the 2010 election. It was possible that the figure was in the millions, and Johnson led an effort to do an internal audit of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s finances. He brought on longtime accountant Mike Vekich, and just before the start of the 2012 election year, Johnson and other party officials revealed that the state GOP was more than $1.3 million in debt. As more rocks were unturned, that number ultimately grew to more than $2 million in debts.

“The debt number is honestly higher than any of us wants it to be,” Johnson said in December 2011. “There’s some ugly stuff in here.”

“Usually the national committeeman doesn’t do much,” said activist Jennifer DeJournett, who hasn’t decided yet which candidate she will support. “Jeff did the work that the national committee person was supposed to be doing, and more. He garnered some respect for that.”

In 2012, Johnson again had a chance to play the role of party uniter at the spring endorsing convention for U.S. Senate. Near the close of a contentious two-day convention in St. Cloud, Johnson took the podium to address tensions between supporters of Ron Paul and other activists and party regulars.

First, Johnson directed his comments at Paul’s supporters. “You know, there’s a lot of anger. Some of the anger is from people who have been sitting in your seats for 20 or 30 years doing hard work and aren’t here this year because you’re here instead,” he said. Then he looked at the longtime activists in the party. “My advice to you is: Get over it,” Johnson said. “I’m a strong believer [that] in politics there’s no such thing as standing still. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. If we don’t grow, we die as a party.”

“There were some people who really took offense to that, and there were others who were enthused by that, and there were others that said, ‘OK, we have to get along here,’” said GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who is volunteering for Johnson’s campaign. “Overall, that was a very honest and forthright speech that people have, in large part, taken to heart. They respected that.”

The straw poll and beyond

Johnson’s message to activists on Saturday was one he has been practicing since he announced his gubernatorial campaign back in May: He considers himself the most endorsable and the most electable Republican seeking the state’s top office.

“I’m an unapologetic fiscal and social conservative, not in an angry or obnoxious sort of way, but kind of in a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota sort of way. I’ve never been afraid of a fight when a fight is required,” he said. “In this state, as Republicans, winning isn’t about who has the most money, who lives in what part of the state, or who can throw out the most red meat. For us, as Republicans, winning is about choosing the candidate who can make a personal connection with everyday Minnesotans, and who can share a positive and compelling and relevant vision to voters. Not just to Republican voters, but all voters in the state.”

But moving forward, he faces several major challenges. First off, not every candidate who has won the straw poll has gone on to earn the backing of the party at the official endorsing contest. Seifert, for example, won the same straw poll in 2009, but he lost to Emmer the following spring when it came time to claim the endorsement. Some think Thompson, the second-place finisher in the straw poll, will perform better with the broader, less establishment-connected activist crowd that will gather at the official endorsing convention in May.

“I think when it comes to authenticity, the Tea Party, Ron Paul and liberty types, that spectrum, will find more attractiveness in Dave Thompson,” said activist, attorney and blogger John Gilmore, who has been openly supporting Honour’s campaign for governor. “Jeff is really dogged by that nice guy persona, and nice guys finish last.”

After his victory was announced, Johnson expressed cautious optimism about the results. “I don’t know that I believe in the curse of the straw poll,” Johnson said. “These are the most active of the activists.”

There’s also the Seifert factor. His third place finish on Saturday was arguably the biggest story out of the event, and if Seifert enters, Johnson would have to contend with the former House minority leader’s extensive rural Minnesota connections. Seifert, who hails from Marshall, also enjoys a base of support thanks to his years in House leadership and his prior run in 2010.

“It speaks volumes,” Brehm said. “Marty has a strong following amongst the party faithful. The fact that someone can do that well and not be actively running is really impressive.”

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