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REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. -- Wearing rolled-up sleeves and blue jeans, Gov. Mark Dayton stood in an echo-filled shed at Farmfest last week and offered a first glimpse at his case for a second term.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and much more progress needs to be made,” the DFL governor told the crowd. “Clearly, we are doing many things right and we need to stay on this course.”
The election is still more than a year away, but there are already ample signs of an intensifying campaign as a diverse and potentially growing pool of Republicans try to find their footing in the race for governor. Farmfest has long been an election-year proving ground for candidates trying to connect with outstate Minnesotans. But even in this political off-year, a host of GOP rivals made the trek to the southwestern corner of the state to make some early inroads.
“There are lots of good friends down there,” former House Speaker Kurt Zellers said as he drove back from his Farmfest visit.
Candidates aren’t just shaking hands and munching on fair food. Both sides are hiring staff, recruiting supporters, planning State Fair events and plotting a strategy.
“It will be intense,” Dayton said. “The stakes are high … I’ve seen these campaigns in other states sink to lower and lower levels and I expect it will be the same here next year.”
Although Dayton won by the thinnest of margins three years ago, his political opponents acknowledge he will be difficult to beat. He has enjoyed strong approval ratings in recent polls and is buoyed by a strengthening economy.
“Anybody that thinks that he is going to be easy to beat definitely doesn’t have their head in the right place,” said state Rep. David FitzSimmons, an Albertville Republican who ran gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s successful 2010 campaign for the GOP endorsement.
Republicans are still sorting out who will run against him amid a troubled political backdrop. The state GOP is still digging out from debt dating back to the last gubernatorial race and big-name contributors are so far largely sitting on the sidelines.
“A lot of things have to break the Republicans’ way in order to win a statewide race in Minnesota right now,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks gubernatorial campaigns across the nation.
But in the southwestern Minnesota home of Farmfest, which voted for Emmer three years ago, the people there could play a big role in helping Republicans change that. The party will need heavy turnout from farmers in the reliably conservative western and southern borders to topple Dayton.
“Farmers, as my grandpa would say, they are the best BS detectors in the world,” said Zellers, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota and now represents Maple Grove in the state House. “They don’t listen to shiny commercials and fancy ads, they look at the policy and they study it.”
Zellers is not alone in the quest to defeat Dayton. State Sen. Dave Thompson, of Lakeville, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and businessman Scott Honour are in, as well. State Sen. Julie Rosen, a Fairmont Republican who attended Farmfest last week as she does every year, and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert are also flirting with possible runs for governor.
Dayton’s first term is not without blemish, to Republican eyes. He presided over the longest partial state government shutdown in state history, boosted government spending and stands to usher in the largest union expansions in recent memory.
Dayton’s last three years are also marked by achievements he hopes will resonate with most Minnesotans. He made significant increases in school funding, including bringing all-day kindergarten to the state. He refilled the state’s coffers, balanced the budget without cutting aid to cities, and legalized same-sex marriage.
The governor says his 2014 campaign mantra will be: “Make more progress.”
“I think he’s positioned well enough to win in part because, in fairness, whether you agree or disagree with him, he has delivered on what he said he would do in 2010,” said Independence Party’s Tom Horner, who ran against Dayton three years ago.
Dayton and his allies are also gearing up to bring on new supporters. The governor, who has self-financed all his previous campaigns, has held more than a dozen fundraisers to fuel the 2014 fight. Ken Martin, DFL Party chair, said he is already holding meetings with donors to put the cash behind their “ambitious and aggressive” 2014 campaign plans.
State Democrats have proved in recent years that they can translate their plans into wins. With massive outside spending in 2010, they broke their generation-long drought in the governor’s office. Then last year, they toppled Republican control of the state House and Senate, racking up big wins for Democrats in both chambers. Next year, they will focus on keeping those victories for the long-term.
“The electorate in Minnesota is a volatile electorate,” Martin said. “All of our partners are deeply invested in making sure that Governor Dayton is re-elected.”
Republicans are piecing together their own plan. Having seen Democrats’ success with focused efforts, their big supporters have started a series of private meetings in hopes that a more coordinated approach will bring them electoral victory.
The trick will be to find a message and a candidate who resonates with voters.
Thompson, a Lakeville Republican running on a small-government platform, acknowledged that most voters are not thinking about the gubernatorial field quite yet.
“They don’t want to be waking up every morning thinking about the government,” said Thompson, who visited Farmfest.
Pausing from listening to a charity auction of toy farm equipment at Farmfest, Giff Sparks, 77, said Dayton is not to his liking.
But Sparks has yet to focus on the people who are vying to replace him. “I’m retired so I don’t look too much,” said Sparks, who lives outside Sargeant.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB