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In Minnesota governor’s race, a regional reversal

August 18, 2018

Minnesota’s race for governor, with a DFL candidate from Mankato in Tim Walz and a Republican from the Twin Cities suburbs in Jeff Johnson, upends a geographic dynamic that has increasingly defined Minnesota politics in recent years.

In recent elections, Minnesota Republicans have built a durable political base outside the Twin Cities. While the party has struggled to win statewide, the GOP has nailed down majorities in the state House and Senate by decimating the ranks of rural DFL politicians in local races.

That came into play stronger than ever in 2016, when President Donald Trump carried all but nine of Minnesota’s 87 counties while narrowly losing the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump also heavily carried southern Minnesota’s First Congressional District, which Walz has represented for a dozen years. Notably, Johnson has embraced Trump and his policies as he mounts his campaign this year.

Walz managed to hold the First District in 2016 despite Trump’s 15-point win over Clinton there, and his outstate bearing — he’s a former teacher and coach, and a military veteran who not so long ago was even backed by the National Rifle Association — offers the DFL a novel face for a party increasingly reliant on Twin Cities voters.

Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner for nearly a decade, acknowledged in an interview that he knows he has work to do in battling a DFLer who’s much more well-known across the lower swath of the state.

“I’m going to have to work a lot harder down there. But I think many of my issues are going to be a better fit in southern Minnesota and anywhere else in greater Minnesota,” Johnson, who grew up in northwestern Minnesota’s Detroit Lakes, told the Star Tribune. He cited issues such as guns, refugee vetting and immigration, and Walz’s support for a gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure improvements.

Walz said in an interview that he’s been successful in southern Minnesota because voters there have come to know him and he’s never hidden certain views out of fear of alienating rural voters — as when he spoke in favor of same-sex marriage and action on climate change during his first run for Congress in 2006.

At the same time, he said, he has shifted positions on some issues after talking to a broader set of Minnesotans since getting in the race more than a year ago. He said he wants to avoid the kind of polarized approach to issues that increasingly seems to define politics.

“I see a welcoming Minnesota that pays for what it needs, that doesn’t see a problem striking a balance between the 2nd Amendment and safe schools,” Walz said.

Johnson lost the 2014 governor’s race to Gov. Mark Dayton, despite carrying 53 of 87 counties — some in greater Minnesota but also a number of large suburban counties including Anoka, Dakota, Washington, Scott and Carver. This year, his challenge is more than geographic — he must win over some skeptical Republican officeholders and operatives who watched him struggle in 2014 to raise campaign funds or hit on a potent message.

Supporters say Johnson is riding a wave of momentum from his upset victory over former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in last week’s primary, which they say is already boosting fundraising and political support. Gregg Peterson, the co-chairman of Johnson’s finance committee, said he and his team have already had dozens of conversations with big-dollar donors who were supporting Pawlenty.

Johnson said he will win over the business class overwhelmingly — and raise the $2 million he’ll need to get his message out — once he relays the clear contrast between his proposals and those of Walz: “If they look at what I will do for the state of Minnesota and our competitiveness and what Walz will do, then it should be an easy choice when it comes to a taxes and regulatory standpoint.”

Some big-dollar former Pawlenty supporters are already on board, citing both the stakes of the election — a Johnson victory would likely mean full Republican control of state government for the first time in half a century — and Johnson’s impressive primary campaign, which shocked the GOP political establishment last week.

Mike McFadden, an investment banker who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2014 and was on the Pawlenty finance team, said Johnson’s strong showing against Pawlenty showed work ethic and smart strategic choices. “Clearly, he was the underdog and he pulled off a big victory, and I think he’s going to do that again in November, and I’m going to fully support him and encourage others to do the same,” McFadden said.

The factors that shaped his 2014 loss are no longer in play this year, Johnson said.

“What I heard was, ‘Things are going OK. Why switch horses midstream? I heard that over and over again.’ That’s not what I’m hearing today,” Johnson said. “Independents who were willing to give Mark Dayton a second term are not looking for a third Dayton term, which is what Walz is offering.”

Historically, Johnson is right: Minnesotans tend to re-elect incumbent governors but have been far less likely to give control of the governor’s office to the same party for more than eight years.

Walz said that he’s his own person and will offer an inclusive style of campaigning that will presage a similar bridge-building governing philosophy. The unspoken contrast: the harsh partisan volleys Dayton has launched against Republicans in recent years.

“There’s a style that makes people comfortable and that breaks barriers,” Walz said. “The broader the electorate is, the more I find people don’t see compromise as a vice.”

Jeff Ettinger, the former CEO of Hormel and a Walz supporter, said this is what drew him to Walz after years of encountering ideological dogmatism that he said created impossible barriers to solving public policy problems.

“We have challenges and opportunities, and I feel like we need someone who can bring people together. He’s respectful of people and can break some of the gridlock of the political world,” Ettinger said.

In the DFL primary, Walz won every county in the First District. But he also won a number of northwestern Minnesota counties and carried the entire seven-county Twin Cities area save for Ramsey County (the second-place finisher, state Rep. Erin Murphy, is from St. Paul).

As for Walz’s congressional district, Johnson needs to at least hold his own in that part of the state if he’s to become the first Republican since 2006 to win a statewide election. State Rep. Jeanne Poppe, a DFLer from Austin who has been public with her concerns about sagging DFL support outside the Twin Cities, said Walz has the potential to help Democrats with rural voters.

“Now it will be less about geography and more about personality and vision and ability to bring people together to solve problems,” Poppe said. “Leading up to now, there was more discussion about geography, but at this point, I think that’s less of an issue.”

Walz gently mocked the idea that Johnson would be able to turn First District voters against him.

“I look forward to a Twin Cities person trying to tell people in southern Minnesota about a guy they already know,” Walz said.

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042

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