Nearly a year out from next year's election for Minnesota governor, a straw poll of Republican Party activists on Saturday provided a first indication of which GOP candidate could end up on the ballot.

More than 350 attendees of the Republican Party of Minnesota's State Central Committee meeting in Brainerd listened to speeches from seven candidates before casting their ballots. Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, came in first with just over 30 percent of the vote.

Dean, who is serving his seventh term in the state Legislature, has made health care — and particularly doing away with MNsure, the state's individual insurance market — a focus of his campaign. Speaking Friday at a candidate forum hosted by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Dean said he aims to be a governor willing to remove boundaries that hold businesses back.

"We need a governor who understands that, and doesn't have to choose between clean water and prosperity, and clean water and a good economy," he said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate who ultimately lost to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, was second with 26 percent of the vote.

Johnson, a former member of the state House, also pitched himself as a pro-business candidate interested "taking power away from government."

"We're going to change the attitude, the culture in government, from controlling and directing and punishing people and businesses to actually serving the people and the entrepreneurs who pay our salaries," he said.

Former Republican Party chairman Keith Downey finished third in the straw poll with about 17 percent. His campaign quickly sent out a news release applauding the results.

"We've made great progress in four short months, and I think we're in exactly the right place," Downey said.

Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, who formally announced her campaign days before Saturday's meeting, was fourth with just under 9 percent. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, took fifth with about 7 percent of the vote, while teacher and former military intelligence specialist Phillip Parrish was sixth with about 4 percent. Attorney Lance Johnson was last, with less than 1 percent of the vote.

The wide-open race for governor, prompted by Dayton's decision to step down after two terms in office, has attracted a large field of candidates from both major parties. Nearly a dozen Republicans have filed paperwork to run for office, along with six DFLers.

The race is likely to be a focal point of the 2018 election in Minnesota, though voters will also cast their ballots for candidates for Congress, one of the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate, and a handful of state offices, including attorney general and auditor.

Several current GOP elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, attended and spoke at Saturday's meeting. A number of candidates for other offices were also on hand to share their messages with the party's most dedicated members.

State party chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said in a statement that she's pleased with the party's choices as it works to pick a general-election candidate.

"Today's results are a great indicator of how deep our bench is, and we look forward to electing one of these great candidates to be our next governor of Minnesota," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790