Challenger to Franken appears clear, but there’s no firm favorite among four hoping to topple Dayton.
Republicans hoping to unseat Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken are crisscrossing the state, hitting county fairs, parades, rallies and phone banks in a last-minute scramble to win over primary voters, who on Tuesday will choose the candidates to carry the party’s message in November.
Turnout is projected to be low for the late-summer primary, possibly between 200,000 and 300,000, according to the secretary of state. That’s a sharp contrast with 2010, when a high-profile primary that featured Dayton against the DFL’s endorsee and others brought more than 442,000 Minnesotans to the polls. This time, as few as 50,000 votes statewide could determine which Republican takes on Dayton.
“We have four, I think, really strong candidates, all of whom would be a very welcome change from Mark Dayton,” said Keith Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party. “When someone advances, it will be their job to paint our vision for the state, and what Mark Dayton and one-party DFL rule has meant in St. Paul.”
For the state GOP, Tuesday’s stakes are high. The right candidates could help it ride a Republican wave predicted nationally and break a yearslong losing streak. Minnesota Republicans have not won a statewide race since 2006. They lost control of the House and Senate in 2012 and no longer hold any constitutional offices or either U.S. Senate seat.
The party believes its best chance in the Senate race is Mike McFadden, an independently wealthy businessman, a first-time candidate who secured the party’s endorsement over a field of more experienced candidates. He’s raised enough money to mount a serious campaign aimed mostly at Franken. McFadden has a primary challenge from state Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and others, but has largely ignored them.
In the governor’s race, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, Rep. Kurt Zellers, former Rep. Marty Seifert and businessman Scott Honour have waged a low-key primary from which no clear favorite emerged. Johnson is thought to have some advantage because he carries the party’s endorsement. Merrill Anderson, a retired executive, is also on the ballot.
DFL leaders who thought their top incumbents would run unchallenged were startled when former Rep. Matt Entenza resurfaced this election season to challenge state Auditor Rebecca Otto in a bid to restart his political career. Entenza ran and lost in 2010’s gubernatorial primary.
That squabble aside, Democrats are hoping positive economic trends in Minnesota will be a barrier against Republican gains in the coming general election.
Even some prominent Republicans foresee a tough slog for whoever tries to unseat Dayton over pocketbook issues.
“The economy is pretty strong,” said Charlie Weaver, a veteran of state Republican politics and executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the state’s largest corporations. “We have a low unemployment rate — one of the lowest in the country,” he said.
A former top aide under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Weaver predicted that Republican candidates, particularly Dayton’s challenger, will be forced to find other issues as contrasts with Democrats.
Weaver is publicly neutral in the GOP gubernatorial primary, as is the partnership.
Despite a crowded gubernatorial primary field, many Republicans viewed the four candidates as somewhat interchangeable.
“There isn’t anybody who’s obviously caught fire and has the bandwagon going full steam ahead,” said Ron Carey, who chaired the state Republican Party from 2005 to 2009. “These are four good guys that are philosophically close to each other.”
Carey said he is backing Johnson. “The endorsement can be a tiebreaker for a lot of people,” he said.
By the end of last week, Johnson was drawing barbs from both Honour and Zellers, prompting him to suggest himself as front-runner. State GOP chief Downey said some internal party indicators suggest Johnson has pulled ahead at least a little.
Downey said that endorsement or not, the party will embrace whoever wins Tuesday. The party is not hosting a victory celebration for its slate Tuesday but instead plans to have leaders rush to the election night party of whichever candidate comes out on top.
Downey’s counterpart, state DFL Chairman Ken Martin, said his party is eager for the governor’s race to come into focus.