Republican candidate for governor Jeff Johnson heads toward one of the most important weekends of his political career knowing he can’t offer the fundraising power or name recognition of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, nor is he a fresh face like Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.
But the longtime Hennepin County commissioner, who is banking his statewide political ambitions on winning the GOP endorsement at this weekend’s state Republican convention in Duluth, is convinced that he’s the best candidate to win over voters and clinch the pivotal governor’s race for Republicans.
“I really think that most Republicans, and most Minnesotans, are looking for frankness and honesty,” Johnson said. “Carefully poll-tested messaging and pretending you didn’t hear the question ... People see through that and they’re just tired of it. And they’re unwilling to elect politicians who do it.”
Johnson, 51, stepped into this governor’s race with the same platform as four years ago, when he lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. He said Minnesota needs to rein in spending and make state government and its employees more responsive. That message, along with a “nice guy” persona built off his earnest approach to politics and inroads with Republican activists from his 2014 campaign, helped Johnson win the majority of straw polls in the GOP race.
He is widely considered the front-runner for the GOP endorsement. But even if Johnson gets the convention’s backing, Pawlenty’s plan to skip the convention and head right to the August primary means an even bigger test looms.
Johnson fears Pawlenty’s approach will divide the GOP and weaken it ahead of the November matchup with Democrats.
Johnson spent two terms in the state House in the early 2000s, when Pawlenty was House majority leader and then governor. He considers Pawlenty a friend but is quick to point out the former governor’s potential pitfalls among some GOP voters, including Pawlenty’s time in Washington, D.C., and his 2016 comment that President Donald Trump was “unhinged and unfit.”
Johnson, who has aligned with the Tea Party in the past, backed Marco Rubio and later Ted Cruz in 2016, before turning to Trump.
“When it came down to Donald Trump vs. Hillary, I voted for Trump because I think he’s better for our country,” Johnson said. Pawlenty has also said he ultimately voted for Trump.
If Pawlenty is the GOP candidate, the governor’s race will be a referendum on his past, Johnson said, while he can focus on the future. But Johnson’s opponents note drawbacks in his own history: the 2014 gubernatorial defeat and his failed 2006 bid for state attorney general.
“Jeff does have baggage, and he does have a record. He has a record of losing two statewide campaigns,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, a Pawlenty supporter.
Johnson said this election is different from 2014. He is not facing a popular incumbent, and he said that four years ago he focused too much on appealing to independent voters rather than working to motivate the Republican base.
Fundraising trails Pawlenty
Before Pawlenty joined the throng, Johnson scored a decisive victory in February’s statewide caucuses. DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin called Johnson a “darling of the Republican base” at the time but was nonetheless dismissive of his campaign while focusing on Pawlenty.
Pawlenty’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. But at an April event, Pawlenty said he had previously told Johnson and another Republican candidate, “I don’t necessarily need to run if one of you can get some momentum, get some traction, raise some money and show you can be a winning candidate in the state of Minnesota.”
“But,” Pawlenty added. “That hasn’t happened.”
Johnson raised $373,471 since joining the race in spring 2017, according to finance data from the end of March. Giuliani Stephens, a newcomer to statewide politics who is Johnson’s main competition for the GOP endorsement, has raised about one-third of that. She said momentum for her campaign is growing as she emphasizes her experience running a growing suburb — and her separation from the state’s political class.
“I don’t lead a political life. I lead a Minnesota life that involves politics,” Giuliani Stephens said. Phillip Parrish, a naval intelligence officer, is also seeking the endorsement.
Pawlenty has raised more than $1 million for his bid, topped only by DFLer Tim Walz, who secured $1.65 million. Other DFL candidates Rebecca Otto and Erin Murphy had both raised about $100,000 more than Johnson.
Money is not a great indicator of who will win, Johnson said. He expects donations to flow in after the primary if he is his party’s pick.
Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes in a family that his father, Bob Johnson, said was not political. Bob delivered bread and his wife worked at their children’s school in Detroit Lakes. But even before their son could vote, he was door-knocking for Republican state legislator Cal Larson.
Jeff headed to Washington, D.C., for law school and spent a few years in Chicago before he and his wife, Sondi, settled in Plymouth and had two sons, Rolf and Thor. Bob said his son — a former Cargill employment attorney who started his own firm that does employee training and workplace investigations — could have made more in the private sector but wanted to make a difference.
Johnson is unfailingly polite. He wrote a book on connecting with people, with tips on mastering small talk and remembering names.
But the mild-mannered Norwegian Lutheran takes a tough tone when he talks about Dayton and what he sees as exorbitant state spending. If elected, he said, he would hire external auditors to review every state program.
For the past decade, Johnson has brought his government-shrinking philosophy to the Hennepin County Board, where he’s the lone Republican. Fellow Commissioner Mike Opat described Johnson as a “devoted family man” and “very pleasant guy” with whom he has fundamental political differences. Opat said Johnson has been a steadfast opponent of rail and generally hasn’t championed causes apart from a lower budget.
“I think government does more good than harm, and I’m not sure he believes that,” Opat said. “His time up here would be evidence to the contrary.”
Johnson’s message of reining in the Metropolitan Council and cutting taxes appealed to Carol Brumwell, a retiree from Bloomington. She recently attended a political “speed dating” event at the Edina Country Club, where the candidates chatted briefly with small groups. She went to the event torn between Giuliani Stephens, Pawlenty and Johnson. She liked Johnson’s Up North roots and his business experience, but something simpler sold her that night.
“What impresses me about Jeff Johnson is ...” Brumwell paused, then landed on the word she was looking for: “He’s genuine.”
Star Tribune staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.