Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson garnered the Republican gubernatorial endorsement on the fourth ballot at the party’s state convention in Rochester on Saturday night.
The party nod sets the stage for a four-way primary in August, making for what is expected to become the most hotly contest race for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in decades.
Two of the best funded candidates in the GOP field – investment banker Scott Honour and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers – opted not to seek the endorsement at the convention. Marty Seifert – the former House minority leader who ran for governor in 2010 – sought the endorsement, after falling short, pledged to carry his fight to the primary.
Johnson led throughout the balloting, with Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and Seifert locked in a virtual tie for second place, each unable to crack 30 percent in any of the ballots.
Rob Farnsworth, a special education teacher from Hibbing and the least-known of the candidates, received 8.3 percent of the vote in the first round, with delegates responding favorably to his speech, which focused on socially conservative themes.
Farnsworth was knocked from the field in the second round of balloting, as many of his supporters evidently moved over to frontrunner Johnson.
After the third ballot, Thompson, who previously committed to abiding by the party’s endorsement, withdrew from the race, saying he saw no reasonable path to victory. He urged his supporters to back Johnson.
Thompson won accolades from many delegates for assuming the role of the loyal party soldier. After he conceded, Seifert took the stage, with many in attendance expecting that former lawmaker would follow Thompson’s suit. Instead, Seifert acknowledged that he likely could not win the endorsement but did not formally withdraw his name from consideration.
Many in attendance saw that move as a gambit to block any endorsement. With several hundred of the 2,200 delegates having already departed and Johnson short of the requisite 60 percent support, it appeared it might work.
In his remarks from the stage, Seifert said many of his supporters, especially those from his base in distant western Minnesota, had already left and declared that he still intended to seek the party’s endorsement at the primary.
That announcement elicited a chorus of boos and even drew a rebuke from Keith Downey, the Republican Party chair, who called Seifert’s tactical maneuver “uncalled for.”
Several delegates requested that the endorsement be settled via voice vote. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, the convention co-chair, said that was not legal under the party’s constitution.
With many delegates seething at the prospect of a no-endorsement (and still groggy from the U.S. Senate endorsement fight that went to 2 a.m. the night before), emotions ran high.
In the final round of balloting, Johnson secured the endorsement with 1346 votes, while Seifert, having burned some bridges for naught, garnered just 118.
In the day’s only other endorsement, convention-goers backed attorney Michelle McDonald in her bid to unseat Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug.