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The gloves are still on in the race among Republicans seeking to run against Gov. Mark Dayton in November, with the four primary candidates observing a shaky truce — at least for now — on harsh attacks against each other in favor of a mutual barrage against the incumbent.
With fewer than seven weeks until the Aug. 12 primary, none of the four has emerged as a clear favorite. Even so, their jabs at each other lack the sting seen in some intramural fights in years past.
Scott Honour, an investment banker with no political experience on his résumé, likes to note that his opponents are all veteran politicians. Marty Seifert, a former House minority leader and gubernatorial candidate in 2010, is the only rural candidate. He likes to rib Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson as a “suburban lawyer.” Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers frequently enumerates the previous elective defeats suffered by Seifert and Johnson.
That’s a far cry from recent Republican primary contests in states like Mississippi and Virginia, where the fighting went ugly and deep, exposing rifts between the GOP’s establishment and Tea Party wings. Those rivalries exist in Minnesota Republican circles too, and it’s got operatives wondering whether the contest to be the GOP’s standard-bearer against Dayton may yet turn negative.
“It seems very tame, so far,” said Ben Golnik, a Republican consultant who ran Seifert’s failed 2010 campaign and who is neutral this year. “No sign the candidates are going to engage each other.”
Four years ago, Golnik was in the thick of a sometimes-nasty endorsement brawl between Seifert and Tom Emmer, then a state representative. In that race, Seifert’s campaign publicly raised the issue of Emmer’s DWI arrests in 1981 and 1991.
GOP races around the country this year have been similarly contentious. In Mississippi last week, Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran narrowly won a brutal primary over Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel — a race that saw several McDaniel supporters arrested on charges of allegedly filming Cochran’s wife in her nursing home bed.
Here, the intraparty race has stayed mostly respectful, steering clear of personal attacks. Some longtime activists say the reason may be rooted in that Seifert-Emmer fight. Emmer survived to get his party’s endorsement and nomination, but advanced to the general election badly dinged. He lost narrowly to Dayton in what otherwise was a year of electoral triumphs for Republicans. Emmer is now the leading candidate to replace U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the Sixth Congressional District.
Seifert is no stranger to rough-and-tumble politics. He is well-remembered at the Capitol for a frequently sharp tongue. But this year he said he’d save his fire for the incumbent governor.
“I’m not running any negative ads against these guys. I don’t know if someone will against me,” Seifert said. “Seven weeks of running hard, and let the voters figure it out.”
Johnson echoed that sentiment. “I really believe we can only win if we come out of this as a united and energized party,” he said.
Saving jabs for Dayton
By pulling punches in the primary, this year’s GOP candidates are following the DFL playbook from 2010. Dayton and his primary rivals, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza, traded their share of barbs, but saved the hardest blows for Emmer and outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pat Shortridge, a former party chairman now running Honour’s campaign, recalled that DFLers “spent most of their time making their case against us.”
In the month since the party’s state convention, despite an unprecedented four-way gubernatorial primary, Republicans have found different ways to pummel Dayton. In recent days, Honour and Johnson released press statements blasting Dayton on northern Minnesota mining, and Johnson held a news conference to chew on a favorite Republican bone — the DFL-proposed plan for a new state Senate office building.
Seifert has gone after Dayton on MNsure rates, as did Honour. Zellers has issued a fundraising plea that highlighted his clashes with Dayton from his time as House speaker. He also recently took after Dayton on sex-offender policy.
“I’m not running because I’m better than Jeff Johnson or Marty Seifert, I’m running because I think I can do a better job for the state than Mark Dayton is,” Zellers said.
The governor has mostly declined to take the bait after the fusillade of GOP attacks. “Until the Republican Party chooses their nominee on Aug. 12, we are not going to respond every time one of them makes an attempt to seek publicity,” said spokesman Matt Swenson.
The unofficial truce held through a four-way debate Friday night on “Almanac,” where the four needled each other over differences in their background, but held their harshest critiques for Dayton.
It remains to be seen if the detente will last: Independent political groups that support a specific candidate are bound to start weighing in at a greater level, and their attacks are likely to be sharper than those from the official campaigns.
“If polling starts to show a two-person race, then those two candidates are going to have an incentive to take a shot at one another,” said Brian McClung, former spokesman for Pawlenty, now a public-relations consultant and a Zellers supporter. “Or the person in third will take shots at one and two. Nevertheless, I think the vast majority of the punches thrown by the Republican primary opponents are going to be directed at Mark Dayton.”
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.