Jeff Johnson is GOP pick to challenge Gov. Dayton

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2014 - 10:58 AM

After low-key, low-budget campaigns, focus turns to taking control in the state.Endorsement helps carry county commissioner to top of the GOP fieldIn the U.S. Senate race, newcomer Mike McFadden will face Al Franken

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Republicans chose Jeff Johnson on Tuesday to be their candidate for governor, betting that the mild-mannered political veteran is the party’s best chance to unseat Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner from Plymouth, led a four-man field throughout the night and, with 99 percent of the counted, emerged victorious with 30 percent of the vote. Party endorsement helped propel Johnson past state Rep. Kurt Zellers, who finished in second with 23 percent. Former state Rep. Marty Seifert came in third, just ahead of businessman Scott Honour.

A beaming Johnson told supporters on Tuesday night that “Mark Dayton is a fairly popular incumbent and a lot of people are going to say it’s going to be really hard to beat him, but we can do that.” From a victory celebration at Digby’s restaurant in Plymouth, he urged Republicans to unite around a vision that appeals beyond the party base and to raise a lot of money for his campaign.

Low-key by nature, Johnson has sold himself as a solid conservative who would push to lower taxes, cut state spending, grow jobs and advocate for a state “where every child has access to a great education … patients and doctors make their own health care decisions … and there is no longer anger or envy over income differences.”

Dayton, who promptly called Johnson Tuesday night to congratulate him, now must prepare to defend the accomplishments of a busy four years in office as he seeks a second term.

“Minnesota’s in a lot better shape now than it was four years ago,” Dayton said Tuesday, noting the state’s nation-leading employment rate. Dayton voted in St. Paul in the afternoon. He faced only token opposition in the primary, but with about 178,000 votes he got more votes than the four leading Republican contenders combined.

The low-spending GOP primary featured candidates who were reluctant to lay into one another and the contest did little to drive turnout. TV ads were scarce, and candidates struggled for funding and attention amid the distractions of a Minnesota summer.

Once Johnson’s win became clear, Zellers consoled his children as well as supporters in a concession speech.

After the race was called, and before walking up for his concession speech, Zellers hugged his teary-eyed wife, Kim, and daughter Reagan. His son, Will, asked “What’s the score?” Kurt responded, “More them, less us.”

Zellers told the crowd, “I never in my wildest dreams at all thought that after growing up on a farm … in North Dakota I would be this close to running for governor of Minnesota.” Of his future Zellers that at 44, “I’m a little young to hang up my cleats.”

Honour issued a statement urging the party to unify behind Johnson as it attempts to defeat Dayton.

The GOP has said its top goal is to break Democrats’ stranglehold on state government, where DFLers control not only the governor’s seat, but every constitutional office and both bodies in the Legislature. Republicans say that kind of one-party rule has resulted in overly high taxes and excessive spending.

Johnson and his three opponents are scheduled to appear together at a Wednesday morning press conference at the Capitol.

Johnson’s quiet demeanor is a notable contrast to Dayton’s last challenger, Tom Emmer. A brash and gregarious state representative at the time, Emmer lost narrowly to Dayton four years ago. He mounted a political comeback Tuesday by winning the GOP nod for the Sixth Congressional District seat.

Johnson brings low-key style

But Johnson also tried to show a quirky side as a candidate, as in the campaign ad where he compared his teenage son’s erratic driving to Dayton’s leadership style.

Johnson, 47, was born and raised in Detroit Lakes. He and his wife, Sondi, have two sons, aged 15 and 11.

After law school, Johnson worked for several law firms and as an attorney for Cargill. In 2000, he was elected to the Minnesota House, where he served six years.

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