When Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson garnered the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday night, he answered one of the more persistent questions to emerge from the campaign: Yes, it turns out that the Republican Party’s endorsement still counts for something.
How much is another matter, and the answer to that question won’t be settled until the polls close in November.
But in the most competitive Republican gubernatorial primary in almost a century, Johnson, who secured the party’s endorsement at the state convention in Rochester earlier this summer, bested three rivals who enjoyed substantial advantages in terms of either name recognition, money or both.
Facing formidable opposition from Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, and retired venture capitalist Scott Honour, Johnson trumpeted his status as the party’s endorsee throughout the summer-long primary campaign.
In the wake of the party’s state convention in Rochester, some political insiders wondered if Johnson had made a tactical blunder and burned through too much cash in his all-out push to woo delegates with slickly produced media operations and lavish touches like free oysters. The strategy paid off in spades on Tuesday.
Still, money remains a major concern heading into the general election. In preprimary campaign finance filings, Johnson had just $120,000 cash on hand, while Gov. Mark Dayton, who coasted to an easy primary victory on Tuesday against token opposition, had $850,000.
Addressing a throng of pumped-up supporters at Digby’s, a bar and restaurant in his hometown of Plymouth, Johnson acknowledged the challenges of running against “a fairly popular incumbent” as he he mapped out his path to victory.
“You know how we’re going to do it? We’re going to do it with a united party and a team like this,” he said. “And we’re going to do it with a lot of money, which I’m going to start raising tomorrow.”
Whether Johnson will be able to raise enough money or even unify a divided party before the general election are among the critical questions.
Republicans took a stab on the latter front on Wednesday morning, as Zellers, Seifert and Honour joined Johnson for a unity rally with Republican party officials in St. Paul. In brief remarks to the press, all three pledged to support Johnson’s campaign.
The sting of the rebuke at the polls was plainly visible from body language, as the three losing candidates stood apart at the presser and eschewed the usual group hug photo-op.
For his part, Johnson credited his victory to the value of party’s endorsement and promised to immediately commence “dialing for dollars.” He said he expected to raise the maximum permitted under the voluntary spending limit agreement both he and Dayton have agreed to abide to in exchange for public financing.
Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey asserted that the primary demonstrated increased enthusiasm among long-dispirited Republican voters, noting that the 180,000 who turned out beat the party’s previous record for an August primary by 40 percent.
However, Johnson acknowledged that distinction was not especially significant, given that the August primary was only instituted in 2010.
In the final tally, Johnson beat his closest opponent, Zellers, by seven percentage points, although that impressive number was undermined by Johnson’s relatively paltry share of the overall vote. At 30.29 percent, it is the lowest for any gubernatorial nominee since 1924 and fell short of the 35 percent Johnson previously set as a target.
As former Republican Party deputy chair and political analyst Michael Brodkorb noted, the gubernatorial nominee received fewer primary votes this year than Sharon Anderson, a perennial candidate who lost in her quixotic challenge to the GOP’s endorsed candidate for attorney general, Scott Newman.
“There’s a real intensity gap for Republicans, they have to be aware of that,” Brodkorb said.
For the other candidates, the results left plenty of cause for regrets, what ifs and second guessing.
Seifert, whose tactical gambit to block Johnson’s endorsement at the convention caused a minor furor among party activists, wound up in third place with 21 percent of the vote. On primary night, Seifert’s numbers steadily crept upward as results came trickled in from outstate, giving rise, briefly, to hopes that his focus on greater Minnesota would be validated.
For Zellers and Honour, the outcome cast doubt on their decisions not to seek the endorsement.
Zellers, who is not seeking re-election to his House seat, sought to parlay his role as speaker of the House during the government shutdown in 2011 as evidence of his conservative cred on fiscal issues, while Honour, a political novice, cast himself as an outsider and consistently referred to his opponents as “career politicians.”
In the end, the Honour campaign — which he largely self-funded — spoke to the enduring truth of that old Beatles lyric: money can’t buy you love.
While the four-way race intrigued political insiders because of its unusual dynamics and implications for a party that has not won a statewide race since 2006, it elicited little more than a shrug from the general public.
In part, that apathy can be attributed to a disengaged public or an improving economy. But the candidates also failed to highlight many substantial differences — or, for that matter, temperament — to awaken the slumbering electorate. The few gotcha moments that emerged during the debates and forums over the summer were minor.
While all four candidates are self-avowed social conservatives, they insisted their positions on issues ranging from gay marriage to abortion — critical to winning a Republican primary but a potential liability in a general election — would not be top governing priorities.
Instead, the candidates all focused on cutting taxes and government spending and regularly blasted Dayton for his handling of issues state’s health care exchange and support for a new senate office building at the Capitol
Given the blowback from the GOP’s politically disastrous push to ban gay marriage in 2012, the emphasis on such pocketbook issues may have been the best strategy available.
But as Johnson wades into a general election, some of those red meat appeals to the Republican base could also prove problematic.
Within minutes of his victory declaration, Democratic operatives were busily highlighting his promise to “go all Scott Walker on Minnesota” — a pledge that doubtless holds much more appeal to the Republican base than the swing voters Johnson will need in his uphill battle against Dayton.