Some Minnesota Republican donors, activists and operatives are having trouble mustering excitement for the announced candidates in the 2018 governor's campaign — a winnable race, in the eyes of many, that would award them full control of state government for the first time in half a century.
The field includes Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, Hennepin County Commissioner (and former gubernatorial candidate) Jeff Johnson, former GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey, state Sen. David Osmek of Mound and Phillip Parrish, an educator and Naval reservist.
"I think we need someone to enter this race with the heavy political horsepower needed to win decisively next year. I haven't seen that in any of the current candidates thus far," said Andy Brehm, a former GOP operative who is now a corporate lawyer.
"If one of the announced candidates is our nominee, I'll vote and work for him," Brehm said, emphasizing that he knows and likes many of them. "But I'm hopeful names such as [Kurt] Daudt or [Tim] Pawlenty get into this race. They're proven winners. We need a winner."
Many Republicans are waiting on Daudt, the speaker of the Minnesota House who led his party to majority control in 2014 and then expanded it two years later, and Pawlenty, the former governor and last Republican to win a statewide race when he was reelected in 2006.
State GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan dismissed any concerns with the current crop, saying that she was "very encouraged and inspired by our field. All the gentlemen are working incredibly hard, traveling around the state and sharing their vision for what a better Minnesota could look like under conservative leadership."
At a chamber of commerce forum in Shoreview last week, the candidates themselves brushed aside speculation about those who aren't yet running.
"I thought about running for governor. And then I ran for governor. And I'll tell you what — they're really different," said Dean in what seemed like a veiled shot at Daudt, whose extended indecision about running has played out in the media.
"There's a lot of speculation, but most of the people I talk to when I travel the state, they live their lives and they're looking for some leadership, and I'm finding a lot of support out there, and that's what I'm focused on," Dean said.
Osmek said the political chattering class has its own agendas.
"How many times does Tim Pawlenty have to say no, and how many different ways does he have to say no? Honestly, the people who are chumming the waters with this are people who need attention," he said.
While Pawlenty has repeatedly said he is retired from politics, he's also been talking to political operatives and potential financial contributors about a return to Minnesota politics, according to several prominent Republicans.
Asked if the speculation is affecting the campaign, Osmek acknowledged it is a factor.
"Delegates are saying 'I want to hear from everybody,' and I hate to say it but they want to see who is in the race, because there is speculation," he said.
The march to the nomination will begin at the precinct caucuses in February. Republican delegates will gather in Duluth in early June to officially endorse a candidate, and then voters will make their decision on the party's candidate when they vote in the August primary.
While some Republican activists hope for a more high-profile candidate than the men now in the race, they also are facing a field whose major candidates are all from the metro suburbs even though the party of late has become stronger in the state's rural areas.
"We need somebody from greater Minnesota," said Ted Lovdahl, chairman of the Virginia, Minn.-based Eighth Congressional District Republicans.
Lovdahl, who has known Daudt for at least a decade, wants him to run: "He's a proven winner, and that's what we need."
At the Shoreview forum, however, the candidates already in the race tried to persuade the business people in the room that they are ready to win and govern.
Although all are conservative men, each offered a slightly different approach.
Osmek, who is known for his outspoken views at the Legislature, is bringing the brawling style of President Donald Trump to Minnesota. "I think people are looking for a fighter for values they can believe in," he said.
At one point, he held up a picture of DFL Rep. Tim Walz's face attached to a chameleon and called him "Two-Faced Timmy," accusing him of changing his political positions.
Dean, who has focused his campaign on health care, takes a more understated approach while emphasizing that Minnesotans have been left behind by political elites.
"I would like to have a governor who says 'I want you to stay in Minnesota if you make stuff, if you harvest stuff, if you heal people,' " he said.
Johnson, who lost the 2014 governor's race to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said, if elected, he would transplant his years as the Hennepin County Board's most fiscally conservative member to state government.
"We can't continue to grow government at a slower rate and call that a victory," he said.
Downey, a former legislator who was party chairman until earlier this year, is trying to connect with business people, often using the language of corporate turnarounds.
"I look at what's happening and the trend line feels like it's in the wrong direction," he said. He said no group in Minnesota felt more under attack than the business community.
Parrish leans on his military service and raises an issue used to great effect by Trump in 2016: immigration. Parrish called it a drain on the public treasury, "much more draining than people might realize and the press just isn't talking about it, and they're not talking about it on purpose."