The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 31, 2013

Republicans line up to challenge Dayton

GOP looks for candidate with broad appeal

By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio News

---- — As Gov. Mark Dayton prepares to run for a second term, plenty of Republicans are preparing to take him on.

All of them say that the Democratic governor is taking the state in the wrong direction by increasing taxes and government spending. They also agree that to defeat Dayton, Minnesota Republicans need to look beyond someone who can merely excite the party's far right to find a candidate with broad appeal.

But there is no consensus among the potential Republican gubernatorial candidates about how the GOP should unite behind one. Just two of the six candidates say they will honor the party endorsement process. The others say they're keeping open the option of primary campaigns if they fail to win the endorsement of GOP convention delegates.

Among those considering fighting it out in a primary is former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Springfield, who ended his 2010 campaign for governor campaign after Tom Emmer won the endorsement.

"We have to be able to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats, and I have the proven ability to do that," Seifert said. "Everyone in the race is a good person, but I've got the ability to win the general."

Seifert said as he campaigns crowds are larger than they were in 2010 and Republicans are telling him they want to win, not just nominate a conservative to make a point.

"They're tired of losing," he said. "And we hold as Republicans no statewide office right now, and we do not have control of either chamber of the Legislature so I think there's a mindset change that people have that they maybe didn't have before."

In the last big statewide race — the 2012 Senate contest, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar trounced Republican challenger Kurt Bills by nearly 35 percentage points. Bills won the GOP endorsement at a state convention that was stacked with libertarian supporters of former Congressman Ron Paul.

Like Seifert, investment banker Scott Honour is trying to appeal to party insiders who will cast endorsement votes at the state convention. But Honour is also preparing for a primary campaign.

"We need new leadership to take us on the right path, and I didn't see that leadership coming out of the Republican Party," Honour said.

Honour, of Wayzata, has never before run for elective office. But he has a lot of money, and said he's "seeding" his campaign with some of it. He won't say how much of his own money he plans to spend.

As he campaigns, Honour stresses his success in business.

"Over the last decade I led a firm that bought and fixed 60 companies around the country and elsewhere in the world, and we had over 50,000 employees, $20 billion in revenues," he said. "Those skills that I used to help make that firm successful I think are exactly what's needed here in St. Paul."

Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove is also looking toward a primary campaign. Zellers said his experience campaigning, raising money and going toe-to-toe with Gov. Dayton makes him the best choice for Republicans.

Zellers claims as a victory was the agreement that ended the 2011 state government shutdown without tax increases Dayton had been insisting on.

"None of the other candidates in the race — either former legislators, current legislators or people who haven't been involved in politics — can say that they've sat across the table from Mark Dayton and won," Zellers said.

Polls showed Minnesotans sided with Dayton in the dispute. The next year voters stripped control of the Legislature from Republicans and gave Democrats majorities in both houses, which set the stage for Dayton to pass his tax increase on top earners.

As House speaker, Zellers also allowed a vote on the plan for a state-subsidized Vikings stadium. Conservatives and others have slammed the package as a waste of taxpayer money.

Zellers, who did not support the bill, said it could have made it to the floor even if he had tried to block it, and that he should not be blamed for its passage.

"I knew it wasn’t going to work out, but I also didn't want to be a dictator as speaker," he said. "I thought that everybody should a have a fair vote. I obviously voted no, so I was on the opponents' side. I wanted to give them a fair shot to defeat the stadium. You know the proponents were going to be able to bring the bill up."

Rob Farnsworth, who teaches special education in Hibbing, isn't as well known as Zellers or Seifert, but said he would be a strong candidate for Republicans. Apart from an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Minnesota's 8th District three years ago, Farnsworth has no political experience.

"The fact that they're well known, it's a benefit," Farnsworth said of the other Republicans who would be governor. "But it could be a detriment because there’s a lot of baggage when people have served in the Legislature. There are some bad votes, and there is some history; and when the opposition tries to find baggage on me they're not going to find any."

Rounding out the field of GOP gubernatorial hopefuls are two politicians who say they will not run primary campaigns if they fail to win the Republican endorsement. State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth say a primary will hurt their party's chances to defeat Dayton.

Johnson, who served in the state House from 2001 to 2007, took the lead in an early straw preference poll of Republican delegates. But he said he also has broad appeal beyond the GOP base.

"You can look at my electoral history both in my House races and, probably more importantly in the county board races, I am able to not just win Republican votes but to win big majorities of independent voters and moderate voters," Johnson said.

Thompson, a former talk radio host, said his communication skills will help him attract support. He also said he's proved he does not wavier from his principles.

"I have demonstrated through my time in the Senate that I will do what I say," Thompson said. "So I think the voters can count on me to promote the things that I have said I believe in and then follow through."

The long list of Republican candidates reflects GOP optimism that the Democratic governor who won by fewer than 9,000 votes in 2010, is vulnerable going into re-election.

But as the incumbent, Dayton has the edge, University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said.

Pearson also said Dayton's success at enacting the tax increase on top earners bolsters his prospects for winning a second term.

"The fact that so many in the Republican field have said that although they may seek the endorsement if they don't get it they'll go to the August primary, I think, speaks to a growing awareness among Republicans that they need to nominate someone who has appeal to moderate voters statewide, not just appeal to activists in the Republican Party," Pearson said "But even then I think it will be difficult."

While Dayton has so far shown little interest in talking about his re-election effort, he recently said he's already raised $1 million for the 2014 campaign. All the candidates are required to report their 2013 fundraising by end of January.