State Rep. Matt Dean on Thursday joined an increasingly crowded and competitive race for governor in 2018, with the longtime state legislator emphasizing his health care policy experience.

A former House majority leader, Dean is the first Republican of significant statewide stature to enter the gubernatorial race, but more are likely to join in.

Dean, an architect by training, is in his seventh term in the House. He was majority leader in 2011-12, and as current chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee is responsible for shepherding a complex, nearly $14 billion budget through the Legislature.

“Right now Minnesotans are looking for practical solutions, and they are very tired of governing by politics,” Dean said in an interview. “When you’re not protected by government or a union or a lobbyist, things don’t work out so well for you. Middle class Minnesotans see that.”

Dean said his priorities would be fixing the health care system, curbing government spending and reducing the regulatory burden on several business sectors: agribusiness, mining, timber and manufacturing.

Dean’s wife, Laura Dean, is an obstetrician who is active in state Republican politics; he called her an important asset to his campaign. They have three children and live in the town of Dellwood, on White Bear Lake.

With DFL Gov. Mark Dayton not running again next year, both political parties view the 2018 governor’s race as one of the most important statewide elections in years. A GOP victory would likely secure both the Legislature and executive branch for the party for the first time in decades.

Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a DFL-aligned group, attacked Dean. “The last thing we need is a governor whose priorities include taking away health care for over 100,000 Minnesotans while lining the pockets of insurance companies, and with no guarantees of lower health care rates,” Joe Davis, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

Dean said getting Minnesotans off public programs, particularly Medical Assistance, should be welcomed rather than feared.

“We should stop measuring our success by how many people are enrolled in government programs, and start measuring our success by how many people don’t have to be on government programs anymore,” he said.

Dean, 51, has a soft-spoken demeanor but is widely viewed as a leader of the conservative wing of the House Republican caucus. Two years ago, he sought the post of House speaker but was defeated by Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who’s mulling his own bid for governor.

Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman is the only other Republican to declare so far. In addition to Daudt, other Republicans considering the race include Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey, 2014 Republican nominee Jeff Johnson and a handful of other state legislators, including Sen. David Osmek of Mound and Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake.

Several DFLers have launched campaigns: U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, state Reps. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Tina Liebling of Rochester, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Other candidates still considering a run are U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis.

Dean said he would seek the Republican endorsement at the convention next year and abide by its decision, meaning he would not run in a primary if he doesn’t win at the convention.

A convention strategy makes sense for Dean, who has traveled the state extensively, building relationships with important GOP activists across Minnesota.

Dean said he put 40,000 miles on his car in 2016 campaigning for GOP colleagues.

He helped run the party’s 2010 election effort, when Republicans picked up 25 seats, and parlayed that work into his successful bid for majority leader.

The victory was short-lived, however. When GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton could not come to an agreement on a budget in 2011, state government shut down, and, in 2012, Republicans lost the House. Dean’s opponents are likely to revisit that history.

Dean said it was a lesson learned: “Minnesotans expect you to get the work accomplished in the time frame you have,” he said.

Although the general election is more than a year away, Dean is already touting his crossover appeal, noting his re-election victories in a swing district: “One year it’s all Republican and then the next all DFL, and if you don’t pay close attention to where the state is, you’re not going do well, so you need to run hard and pay attention to voters.”