Jeff Johnson replaced his campaign manager Friday, as his challenge to Gov. Mark Dayton intensifies and Election Day gets closer.
Johnson dropped the surprise news in an afternoon press release. David Gaither, a former state senator and chief of staff to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is taking over the campaign. He's replacing Scot Crockett, who led Johnson's successful effort to claim the Republican Party endorsement in May and to win the GOP gubernatorial primary in August.
"David Gaither's skills and experience will be invaluable to my campaign as we make the final push to victory in the next six weeks," Johnson said. The campaign said Crockett would return to his home in Virginia to be with his family, but would continue to advise the campaign.
With the election near -- absentee balloting started Friday -- Johnson has struggled with an under-funded campaign and low name recognition. A Star Tribune poll of 800 likely voters taken in early September found that a third of respondents had never heard of Johnson, and another 40 percent had not formed an opinion of him.
The same poll had Dayton leading Johnson, 45 percent to 33 percent.
Johnson's campaign has also yet to air television commercials, while the DFL and third-party group Alliance for a Better Minnesota have already aired ads critical of him. Johnson said earlier Friday he would have a TV ad on the air by the end of September.
Gaither, who like Johnson hails from Plymouth, served as a Republican state senator from 2002 to 2005. He resigned to serve as chief of staff under Pawlenty, generally considered the top staff position in any administration. Gaither stayed in the job only a little over a year.
Most recently, Gaither sought a return to elected office when he ran for his old Senate seat in 2012. He lost to Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. The Johnson campaign said Gaither would take a leave of absence from his job as executive director of the Minneapolis-based International Education Center.
A Dakota County jury convicted Minnesota Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald of refusing to submit to a breath test and obstructing the legal process in connection with an April 2013 traffic stop.
MacDonald was found not guilty of fourth degree driving while intoxicated, while her attorney vows to appeal both convictions. He does not contest a third conviction of speeding.
“She’s disappointed as anyone to get a verdict like this,” said MacDonald’s attorney, Stephen Grigsby. “She intends to pursue the next procedure which is an appeal on the basis of law that allows innocent people to be convicted.”
The jury convicted MacDonald after a daylong jury trial that began Tuesday and ended Wednesday. The jury deliberated for about three hours before delivering the verdicts Wednesday afternoon.
MacDonald, was endorsed by the Minnesota Republican Party at its May convention to run against incumbent Justice David Lillehaug, only to draw ire a month later when charges came to light that she was stopped for speeding, refused to exit her vehicle and did not take a breath test.
MacDonald remained steadfast, maintaining her innocence and appearing at the party’s Minnesota State Fair booth even when she was told she wasn’t welcome, and earlier this month filing a complaint against the party and several members, alleging that they attempted to coerce her into renouncing her endorsement. The complaint was dismissed by an Administrative Law Judge.
Grigsby said he has nothing to do with MacDonald’s campaign and only serves as her attorney in the criminal case. He said MacDonald’s conviction on the test-refusal count is based on a legal interpretation of civil law, which leads to confusion among a jury.
“It’s like asking somebody to find a squared circle,” he said. “It’s not a fact, it’s a legal conclusion and juries only find facts.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 12. In the meantime, Judge Leslie Metzen ordered a psychological evaluation for MacDonald.
MacDonald did not answer a call to her cell phone, and her voice mailbox was full.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden said the withdrawal of the largest insurer from MNsure, the state’s health care exchange, is evidence of the Affordable Care Act’s failure, blaming President Obama and his opponent, Sen. Al Franken, for enacting what he called a broken system.
PreferredOne was the top-selling insurer on MNsure, but its CEO said they’d be pulling out of the exchange, saying their participation was “not sustainable.” PreferredOne insured six out of 10 MNsure consumers who now will have to seek out other providers and may result in higher healthcare premiums.
“I’m a businessman, and as a businessman I know that when someone provides 60 percent of the market and is the low-cost provider drops out of the program, you’re going to see a significant increase in premiums. This doesn’t work.” McFadden said, pointing to a chart from the Hoover Institution that illustrated the tangle of functions that make up the ACA. “I’m very disappointed in President Obama and Sen. Franken because this program has been based on lies.”
The biggest of all, he said, is that Obama care decreased the cost of insurance in the country. PreferredOne’s withdrawal is proof of that, he argued. However, he said he does not believe the insurance company should be held responsible for leaving MNsure. He remained focused on a system he said could be fixed by a “state-based, market-based, patient-centered” system that allows consumers to buy their insurance across state lines.
Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said that because of the ACA, 95 percent of Minnesotans are now insured, while the state’s uninsured rate has been halved.
“Mike McFadden would repeal the health law and take us back to a time when women were charged more for health coverage simply because they were women, people with preexisting conditions were denied coverage, half the bankruptcies in this country were connected with health care emergencies and young adults couldn't get covered under their parents' plan,” she said in a statement. “Once again, Mike McFadden has proven that he would rather jump at the opportunity to play politics than actually solve problems.”
McFadden made his statements on the day the Franken campaign launched another ad claiming McFadden’s investment firm, Lazard Middle Market, was involved in a merger that moved an American pharmaceutical company to Ireland to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
McFadden called the ad “patently false,” saying his firm did not represent the company that made the inversion, and that Franken praised a similar move by Medtronic to new headquarters in Ireland. However, while Franken praised the move as a potential job-creator, he also said the it "needs careful scrutiny."
McFadden said he said companies leave the country because they lack the tax incentives to stay.
“What this is evidence of is you have a president and a Democratic senator and a Democratic Senate that don’t understand tax policy and haven’t done anything over the last six years to make the United States have a competitive tax climate.” he said.
Republican candidate for governor Jeff Johnson blasted Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday for what he called "breathtaking incompetence," after it was revealed that the insurance company that sold more policies on MNsure than any other is pulling out of the exchange.
MNsure officials confirmed Tuesday that PreferredOne, the choice of nearly six in 10 consumers who have bought plans on the exchange, would no longer participate. Insurers are expected to release their 2015 MNsure rates in early October.
"Mark Dayton was desperate to be the first governor in the country to implement Obamacare in Minnesota through MNsure," Johnson said at a Capitol news conference. "He got to handpick his board and handpick his staff and it has been an unmitigated disaster since day one."
Johnson suggested that PreferredOne pulled out because it was offering artificially low rates on its plans under pressure from Dayton's administration. Jeremy Drucker, spokesman for Dayton's re-election campaign, called that ridiculous.
"Of course, administration officials encouraged insurers on MNsure to provide the lowest rates possible to the people of Minnesota," Drucker said. "However, the companies were solely responsible for the rates they decided to offer."
Dayton has owned up to MNsure's struggles. He apologized to consumers who struggled to buy coverage through the glitch-ridden website, and earlier this month he called MNsure's troubled launch the single biggest disappointment of his first term as governor.
Johnson said if elected, his first goal would be winning a federal waiver that would allow Minnesota to pull out of conforming to the Affordable Care Act. If that's not successful, Johnson said, he would seek to replace MNsure's board of directors and its leadership staff. He also said he'd try to increase competition among those companies selling plans on the site.
Drucker predicted that if Johnson is elected, he would seek changes that undermine MNsure's mission of boosting insurance coverage rates.
"This would be devastating to Minnesotans," Drucker said.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and his Republican challenger Mike McFadden have agreed to three debates leading up to the election.
The first of the debates will take place in Duluth, followed by two in the metro just before the Nov. 4 election. They are as follows:
• Duluth News Tribune/Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce: 8-9 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1
• WCCO TV: 10-11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 26
• Minnesota Public Radio: 7-8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2
Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said that, including a FarmFest candidate forum that took place in July, the Senator will have participated in four debates—the same amount that took place in the 2012 Senate race between Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican challenger Kurt Bills.
The McFadden campaign maintainst three isn't enough. McFadden challenged Franken last month to six debates throughout the state, including in Rochester and Moorhead as well as a Twin Cities Public Television debate in the metro. McFadden spokeswoman Becky Alery said the campaign will continue to push for more debates with Franken, particularly in greater Minnesota.
“We've been seeing throughout this campaign that Sen. Franken has continued to hide from Minnesotans, while Mike has traveled the state and talked to Minnesotans from top to bottom.”
Alery added that, with early voting, it’s important Minnesotans have the opportunity to hear from the candidates more than a week before election day.
The newly-finalized schedule coincides with a newly-released ad by the McFadden campaign that calls out Franken as “the invisible senator” and features McFadden facing off with an empty podium adorned with a Franken campaign sign. View it here.
UPDATE: The Franken campaign shot back in response to the ad.
"This ad is absurd," Fetissoff said in a statement. "Minnesotans know that Al Franken is working hard for us here in our state and has delivered concrete results for us in the Senate. Investment banker Mike McFadden is more interested in playing political games than solving the real problems that Minnesota families face."
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