In a speech before a union audience on Monday, an upbeat Gov. Mark Dayton bragged up his record and launched a full-throated attack on his opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, casting the Republican hopeful as an extreme ideologue who is “against almost everything that government does.”
“You know, I’m always amazed at the folks who detest government and believe it’s totally incompetent and then want jobs in government,” Dayton told the delegates at the AFL-CIO’s 52nd annual constitutional convention in St. Paul. “People who believe the private sector has all the answers should find a job there and leave the complex and sophisticated work of public service to those of us who believe in it.”
Johnson, Dayton said, “looks at everything through a narrow ideological lens and much of the time doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.”
In recounting his first two years in office, Dayton described the challenges of coming to the Capitol in the wake of a 2010 wave election in which Republicans captured both chambers of the Legislature.
“These were not your normal Republicans. They were Tea Party extremists and they were on an ideological crusade,” he said. “The best we could do was to keep the worst from happening.”
When the DFL recaptured the Legislature in 2012, Dayton said he was freed up to pursue his own agenda and, he asserted, proved that Republicans were wrong “as usual” about the effects of those policies.
As he ticked off accomplishments ranging from the minimum wage hike to all-day kindergarten to a tax hike on the rich and a tuition freeze at public universities, the governor was greeted by raucous applause, shouts of “We love you, Mark,” and, finally, a chorus of “Four more years.”
As befitting an appearance before a labor group, Dayton repeatedly emphasized his record on the employment front. “There are more jobs in Minnesota today than ever before in Minnesota history,” he said, pointing to the addition of 162,000 jobs since he took office.
For many candidates, delivering such a zesty stump speech and garnering such an enthusiastic reception from a friendly crowd might amount to little more than a good day on the trail. But Dayton has never been known for smooth performances or overt zeal for campaigning. His smooth performance, relatively spritely physical presence and ready smiles came contrasted with the sometimes peevish, hobbled-by-surgery governor on display much of last winter and spring.
It’s all enough to make a Republican wonder: Who is this guy?
Michael Brodkorb, the political blogger and former deputy chair of the Republican Party, said he has been struck by the transformation in style and demeanor. He said he has spoken with other Republicans who have likewise been surprised by the suddenly fluid and on-message Dayton.
“What I’ve seen in the last few weeks is a Dayton who is much quicker on his feet, who is throwing zingers more, and who seems much more comfortable,” said Brodkorb.
He said he was particularly impressed by Dayton’s performance at the State Fair, where the governor appeared as a guest on Joe Soucheray’s talk radio show. Given Soucheray’s conservative leanings, Brodkorb noted, that wasn’t friendly turf but the governor handled it with aplomb.
“He showed more life on the Soucheray program than I ever saw in the 2010 campaign. His messaging is much more engaged than it was in 2010. He seems more comfortable with the political element, his ability to launch verbal bombs,” said Brodkorb. “The expectation among some Republicans was that he would be a lot more docile this cycle. They were wrong about that. Absolutely wrong.”
Brodkorb said Dayton’s vigor on the stump presents a big problem for Jeff Johnson, who has consistently trailed the governor in polls and, despite improved fundraising, still has only about half as much cash on hand as Dayton. Last week’s campaign team shake-up — the departure of campaign manager Scot Crockett, announced on Friday afternoon — “screamed crisis,” Brodkorb said. The campaign said Crockett was moving to his native Virginia to spend time with his family and had been replaced by David Gaither, a former senator and chief of staff for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
With the election only 40 days off, Brodkorb expects Republicans will focus their attention and money on other races.
“It’s tough sell, politically, to say that Johnson is a credible candidate at this point,” he ventured. “I think you’ll start to see more focus on the House races because that’s where Republicans still have some opportunities. Unfortunately, if you have a stagnant race at the top of the ticket, it can really affect those races lower on the ticket, even if you have great candidates.”