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.
Republican Jeff Johnson hammered on the Dayton administration's handling of MNsure Friday, in what has swiftly become a principal theme of his campaign for governor.
It was Johnson's third press conference on MNsure since the news earlier this week that PreferredOne, which offered the lowest rates and sold the most plans on the state health insurance exchange in the last year, is pulling out. Four insurance companies continue to sell plans on the site, but Johnson and Republican allies seized on the news as they try to take advantage of the Dayton administration's struggles to get MNsure operating efficiently.
This time, Johnson called for Minnesota's legislative auditor, a Capitol watchdog agency, to expand an ongoing MNsure audit to include a look at the Dayton administration's role in setting PreferredOne rates. Johnson said the situation "looks fishy," but was not able to offer any evidence or even specific allegations of wrongdoing.
"That's what we need to find out," Johnson said.
A day earlier, Dayton when asked by reporters said his administration did not dictate anything to PreferredOne. The company has made no allegations to that affect, either.
"The Commerce Department and the administration do not dictate to these companies what the rates are," Dayton said. "The notion that we set these rates is another one of the fallacies that those who are opposed to the system want to perpetuate."
While Johnson has tried to turn the MNsure issue against Dayton, the DFL has hit back against Johnson by highlighting some of his own past votes on health care. Specifically, Johnson acknowledged Friday that as a state legislator in 2003, he voted for a budget backed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Republican, that eliminated about 38,000 adults without children from state-provided health care coverage.
"That was a decade ago in the midst of a very deep deficit that we were in the middle of and that was part of the governor's plan to balance the budget without tax increases," Johnson said.
Earlier in his campaign, Johnson talked more frequently of scrapping MNsure altogether. He still says he'd seek a federal waiver from complying with the federal Affordable Care Act, but has also acknowleged that if elected he would likely have to continue to deal with MNsure.
"We have MNsure sitting in front of us and we have to figure out how to move on from that," Johnson said.
With support from Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, the U.S. Senate approved President Obama’s plan to train and equip Syrian rebels Thursday, backing his strategy to confront the Islamic State militants.
The legislation, drafted as an amendment to a routine bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, grants the president authority to train foreign forces to confront the Islamic State.
Opponents in both parties framed the vote as a precarious step toward a wider conflict in a region where American troops have been fighting for more than a decade.
Less than 24 hours before the vote, Franken told the Star Tribune he was unsure if he would support the measure.
“While I do have real concerns about this strategy, I believe that training and arming the Syrian rebels is our best available option,” Franken said in a statement after the vote.
The U.S. House approved the measure Wednesday.
The authorization expires in mid-December with the spending bill it is attached to, ensuring lawmakers will revisit the issue before the end of the year. The bill language specifies that the measure is not a broad authorization of force against the Islamic State.
“There needs to be a full debate in Congress on an authorization to use military force,” Franken said. “What I don’t want is for this to be a slippery slope that leads to another protracted ground war in the region.”
The debate over how to respond to the Islamic State has emerged a flashpoint in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race. Federal authorities suspect that at least a dozen men and women have left the state to join the terrorist group.
Seizing on the potential threat to Minnesotans as a key campaign issue, Republican nominee Mike McFadden has criticized Franken’s, accusing the senator of blindly supporting Obama’s foreign policy.
Jeff Johnson, the Republican nominee for governor, expanded his attack on Gov. Mark Dayton's record on health insurance and management of MNSure, the state's troubled health insurance exchange.
He appeared at Mack Engineering -- a small Minneapolis manufacturing company of machined components for companies such as John Deere and Honeywell – where co-owner Jennifer Salisbury said her company was experiencing skyrocketing health insurance premiums for the company and its 28 employees.
The company is an example of a small group insurance plan that is not in compliance with Obamacare because it does not meet mandated coverage requirements that are designed to give every person an adequate health plan. The Obama administration offered states more time to get small group plans in compliance, but Minnesota declined so that all employers would be treated the same, rather than having some in compliance and others not. Currently, 75 percent of small group plans are Obamacare-compliant.
Johnson said that by declining the extra time, Dayton had caused undue hardship on small businesses such as Mack Engineering.
“This is another example of Gov. Dayton hurting small businesses and their employees,” he said. “He wouldn’t stand up for the Mack Engineerings of Minnesota.”
Jeremy Drucker, a spokesman for Dayton’s re-election campaign, replied in a statement: “What Commissioner Johnson is proposing is to penalize the majority of Minnesota companies who are now providing improved health care coverage for their employees. They would be socked with higher insurance costs if the minority of employers…were allowed to continue to offer substandard plans.”
Drucker added that the cost increases cited by Johnson are due to improvements, such as requiring more comprehensive coverage and no longer allowing disqualification for pre-existing conditions.
Anne O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, said an analysis showed that continued noncompliance would increase costs for groups in compliance between 6 and 10 percent. That's because the non-compliant plans would sweep up the healthiest, cheapest customers, thereby increasing costs for everyone else.
Johnson may sense an opening this week on health care related issues as MNSure faced another setback. PreferredOne, which offered the lowest rates and had signed up nearly six out of 10 consumers who shopped on the online marketplace, announced it was pulling out of the exchange, which led to speculation that rates could increase as its customers seek alternative coverage.