Gov. Mark Dayton enters his final 18 months in office with the highest job approval rating of his tenure, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
More than three out of five Minnesotans — 62 percent — approve of Dayton's performance, according to the poll. It's the DFL governor's highest approval rating in a Minnesota Poll since he took office at the beginning of 2011, and also higher than he ever scored in the poll as a U.S. senator from 2001 to 2006.
That's likely to embolden Dayton as he grapples with the Republican-controlled Legislature over the state budget. Clashes over taxes and spending, transportation, health care and early education are certain to accompany the closing days of a session that ends on May 22.
"I think generally he's been doing a good job, and things are moving in the right direction," said Julia Silvrants of Luverne, who participated in the poll. The 62-year-old hospital respiratory care manager said she likes Dayton's focus on education and appreciates his commitment to tax rates that take more from the wealthy than other Minnesotans.
The 70-year-old governor, elected in 2010 after a long career in Minnesota politics, scored his highest poll ratings in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where he has lived for much of his life. He also did well in the remaining Twin Cities suburbs. Dayton's support dropped in the rest of the state, but stayed above 50 percent in both northern and southern Minnesota.
The poll of 800 registered Minnesota voters was taken April 24-26. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Marjorie Fischer, an 82-year-old resident of Sartell, said she registered disapproval in the poll. She cited the cost of government in Minnesota, which has grown during Dayton's time in office.
"We pay an awful lot in taxes and fees," said Fischer, who cares for a daughter with disabilities. Citing the state's projected $1.65 billion budget surplus, Fischer argued that "the largest part should be going back to the taxpayers." Dayton has proposed significant new spending, including a hefty boost to expand prekindergarten classes at Minnesota public schools — a major initiative of his time in office.
Dayton is not running for re-election in 2018. A wide field of candidates from both major parties is lining up to replace him, and Dayton's strong poll showing gives DFLers at least one reason to be hopeful about hanging onto the seat.
"Minnesotans trust that Gov. Dayton is working hard for them," said Jaime Tincher, Dayton's chief of staff. "He is very grateful for their support."
Since his re-election in 2014, Dayton has had a tumultuous two years. Several key initiatives — like universal prekindergarten, and a major infrastructure package backed by a gas tax increase — have been stymied by Republican opposition. In the run-up to the 2016 election, his criticisms of the Affordable Care Act became national media fodder, and many DFL lawmakers particularly in greater Minnesota lost their elections.
Dayton has also suffered a series of recent health setbacks including prostate cancer and two back surgeries, and he collapsed twice in public within the space of a year.
Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, a frequent sparring partner for Dayton who recently entered the 2018 governor's race, attributed his rival's high marks to the economy rather than his job performance.
"It reflects that the economy is stable in Minnesota," Dean said. "But if you look underneath that, middle-class Minnesotans have a lot of uncertainty moving forward in areas like health care and the future of their jobs."
Dean conceded that Dayton's popularity gives him — or any governor — a valuable megaphone in a potential confrontation with the Legislature.
"It's very important for us to stay connected to the voters," Dean said of his colleagues in the Legislature.
On two issues on which Dayton has clashed with the Republican Legislature, the poll found that a majority of Minnesotans back Dayton's position. More than half of Minnesotans support more taxpayer money to expand light rail in the Twin Cities. And a broad majority oppose the Legislature's effort to forbid cities from setting their own minimum wage and other labor standards.
The Legislature is in the midst of shaping a two-year budget expected to be about $46 billion, but GOP lawmakers and Dayton remain far apart.
The GOP plan aims to use most of the projected budget surplus to deliver $1.15 billion in tax cuts or credits. Republicans also want to make cuts to state government agencies and environmental work, and spend significantly less than Dayton would on schools, transportation and health and human services.
Dayton and GOP lawmakers are also clashing on policy areas including as abortion, buffers to protect waterways from farm pollution and the makeup of the Metropolitan Council.
Silvrants — the Luverne resident who approves of Dayton's performance — illustrates that many voters do not take an either/or approach when it comes to judging politicians.
While praising Dayton, she also said she supports Rep. Joe Schomacker, the Republican who represents Luverne in the state House.
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042