Rep. Matt Dean, who had been mounting an aggressive campaign for governor for most of last year, reshuffled the Republican race Thursday when he unexpectedly dropped out and endorsed one of his opponents, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
A long-serving state representative from Dellwood, Dean had shown some success in courting GOP activists who will endorse a candidate at their state convention in June. As recently as December, Dean won a straw poll of party activists.
Dean's exit and endorsement — less than two weeks before Feb. 6 precinct caucuses — gives an immediate lift to Johnson, who was the Republican candidate for governor in 2014. He lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
"We must focus our efforts on November. We must move forward with a candidate who can quickly scale up with the resources and coalitions for a general election," Dean said at a joint State Capitol news conference with Johnson, of Plymouth. The two men share reliably conservative policy goals such as lower taxes, less regulation and limits on abortion.
Bill Walsh, a GOP Senate aide, White Bear Lake City Council member and Dean supporter, said he believes Dean made a strategic move to help a Republican Party that this year has within its grasp full control of state government for the first time in more than half a century.
"The endorsement of Jeff Johnson says, 'Let's unify. C'mon donors, let's get behind someone,' " Walsh said. "It's hard to build a statewide infrastructure to win in November if you don't start until June or after the primary in August. Let's get unified and go."
In that scenario, Dean is hoping to consolidate support for Johnson — even as Republican activists and donors seem willing to take a wait-and-see approach with the current field, which also includes former state GOP Chairman Keith Downey and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.
More than half of Republican primary voters in a recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll said they are undecided.
Candidates will release their fundraising totals for 2017 next week. While DFL contenders U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman eagerly shared big numbers recently, none of the Republican candidates have released their totals.
"A lot of people I talk to are still on the sidelines, myself included, waiting for someone who can get people excited and can win," said Andy Brehm, a former aide to Sen. Norm Coleman and now a corporate lawyer and GOP fundraiser. "There's a lot of excitement about this race, and people see the incredible opportunity to change the direction of the state. But we don't want to get behind a candidate who can't close the deal. I haven't seen people super enthusiastic about this crop," he said, while emphasizing that he personally likes all the Republican candidates and will support the nominee in the fall no matter who prevails.
Like many Republicans, Brehm is waiting on former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Minnesota Republican to win a statewide race.
"I would love to see him get in the race. The time is right. He's a policy guy. But he's a likable, relatable guy. I'm hopeful he'll get in. I'd be supportive," Brehm said.
Pawlenty, currently a banking lobbyist in Washington, D.C., has repeatedly said he is retired from political life, but is also known to be mulling a return to Minnesota politics.
Walsh said he would support Pawlenty if he gets in, but he wants the two-term governor to make a decision, which would help get activists and donors to commit: "It'd be a good idea for him to tell us what he's going to do. To say, 'I want to be governor, and here's why.' It's all doable, but let's go."
Pawlenty, who has a high-dollar Rolodex, would likely skip the party convention and go right to the August primary, which is why he can afford to wait and survey the landscape.
In the meantime, with Dean's backing, Johnson is well positioned to finish strong in the nonbinding straw poll at precinct caucuses Feb. 6; in 2014 he finished a distant third before winning the nomination.
Josh Anderson, the GOP executive committee member from the First Congressional District in southern Minnesota, said delegates he talked to Thursday were shocked at Dean's departure, given how hard he had been working for their support.
An architect by training, Dean has represented his White Bear Lake area House district since he was elected in 2004. He served two years as House majority leader, and is currently chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. He said Thursday that he would also not seek re-election to his House seat.
Dean earned a reputation as a hardworking campaigner. Last fall, he toured Minnesota's 87 counties in 87 days.
"I wouldn't trade those 87 days for anything I've ever done," Dean said.