Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson announced Wednesday he is running for governor in 2018, hoping Republicans will give him another chance despite his loss to Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014.
“The overriding theme is to take power from government and give it back to people,” Johnson said in an interview. “That’s what you’re going to hear from me for the next year and a half, over and over again.”
Republican voters will have to decide if they want to turn to Johnson again after his 2014 loss to DFLer Dayton, who was re-elected by some 110,000 votes in what was an otherwise good year for Republicans. In Minnesota, Republicans won a state House majority in the same election.
His 2014 defeat is a strength rather than a weakness, Johnson said.
“One of the things that makes me one of the strongest candidates is that I’ve run statewide and lost,” Johnson said. Nearly 900,000 Minnesotans voted for him, he said, and Johnson managed to raise more than $2 million after winning the competitive Republican primary.
A “small government” message would be consistent with Johnson’s 2014 campaign. But he seems determined this year to run a different kind of race. He has already hired an experienced Iowa political operative to manage his campaign, and he rolled out his announcement Wednesday with a professionally produced video that cheekily paints DFLers as fancy tofu-eating champagne drinkers.
Johnson brings a mild-mannered temperament to his political career, and he has tried to highlight relatable traits like adoration of his pet bulldog. But he has also carved out a reputation as the County Board’s most conservative member, a frequent critic of government spending, light-rail expansion and the Metropolitan Council. He previously served in the state House, and lost a statewide race for attorney general in 2006.
Johnson said his overriding policy objective would be “to increase the disposable income of Minnesotans.” He would do so by cutting taxes, cutting health insurance costs and an “unrelenting focus on helping the private sector create good jobs,” he said.
During Dayton’s tenure, Minnesota employers have added more than 260,000 jobs. But Johnson said many Minnesotans remain underemployed, meaning stuck in a job for which they are overqualified.
“There are a lot of people who would rather be doing something other than what they’re doing, and those options aren’t there for them,” he said.
Johnson said it’s a challenge to persuade quietly proud Minnesotans that the state is falling behind.
“What I have to do is educate people as to where we really are,” he said, citing statistics like the falloff in business start-ups and technology jobs here vs. other states.
Since his last run for governor, Johnson sent his oldest child off to Iowa State University — a big life change that catalyzed his thinking on college affordability, he said. He said he would put out a series of policy papers during the campaign but is already mulling the idea of a $10,000 public university bachelor’s degree for Minnesota residents. Johnson joins a large and increasingly competitive field.
In 2014, Johnson secured the Republican Party endorsement over three other candidates, which helped propel him to his Republican primary win. This year, Johnson said, he would again seek the GOP endorsement, and not run in the primary if he fails to get it.
Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman also have announced they are running on the Republican side. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek are also considered potential candidates, among several others who could get in the race.
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.