Breaking down the competitive primaries in Minnesota

August 12, 2018

From left, Erin Murphy, Tim Walz and Lori Swanson participate in a debate Friday in Minneapolis. All three are running for the DFL nomination for governor.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota has an unusually high number of competitive primaries to keep track of this cycle, so here’s a breakdown of the major races and candidates to watch on election night Tuesday.


DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is stepping down after two terms, leaving the governor’s office wide open. There’s a lot at stake for both parties. Republicans currently control the Legislature and have a shot to control all of state government if they win the governor’s office, and Democrats desperately want to stop that from happening.

Both parties are facing competitive primaries as candidates angle to take their message to the voters in November.


Erin Murphy is a registered nurse who has spent the last 12 years representing a St. Paul state House district, including one term serving as the chamber’s majority leader. She was the first candidate in the race for governor and has secured the DFL Party’s backing with her push for single-payer health care, recreational marijuana and other progressive policies.

Lori Swanson is the three-term state attorney general who has built a career taking on consumer protection cases for the state of Minnesota and more recently in suing over policies pushed by the Trump administration. She is the latest entrant into the governor’s race, arguing she is a problem solver with a record of results for state consumers.

Tim Walz is a former Mankato West High School social studies teacher and Army veteran who has successfully held the conservative 1st District in Congress as a Democrat for the last 12 years. Now, he’s running for governor arguing he’s one of the only candidates who can bridge the state’s urban and rural divide.


Former legislator and current Hennepin County board member Jeff Johnson is making his second run at the governor’s office after losing to Dayton in 2014. He’s got the backing of the Republican Party in his bid, saying he will cut government spending and taxes and temporarily stop the resettlement of refugees in the state.

Former two-term Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty briefly ran for president after his time in office and has since been lobbying for a group that represents large banks in Washington, D.C. He wants a chance to serve in his old job again, saying he will end Social Security taxes and arguing he has a vision to move Minnesota technology and the workforce into the modern era.

Attorney general

The last-minute entrance of current Attorney General Lori Swanson into the governor’s race set off a flurry of candidates seeking her job, an increasingly high-profile office as more state attorneys jump onto lawsuits against the federal government.


After serving in the Minnesota House, Keith Ellison survived a crowded primary field in 2006 to represent the state’s urban 5th District in Congress. Now, he wants to leave Washington, D.C. and return to Minnesota as attorney general, saying he would take on union and civil rights cases and push back on policies from the federal government.

Tom Foley spent 16 years as Ramsey County attorney and prosecuted several prominent cases. He’s made several unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, but he’s running for attorney general now because he said he has the experience running a large office of attorneys that other candidates lack.

Debra Hilstrom was born and raised in Brooklyn Center and, since 2001, has represented the area as a legislator in the state House. The former Anoka County attorney is running for attorney general promising to carry on Swanson’s work on consumer protection cases and taking on the federal government in court.

Matt Pelikan is an attorney in Minneapolis who has spent years as an activist with the DFL Party. He challenged Swanson for the endorsement in June and won the party’s backing after she dropped out from the race on the second ballot. He’s arguing the attorney general’s office needs to be more progressive on issues like gun control and immigration.

Mike Rothman served in the Dayton administration as commissioner of the Department of Commerce. Before that, he worked for years as a trial lawyer on the West Coast and spent time in the state Senate as a staffer. He said his mix of experience makes him the best positioned to quickly jump into cases protecting consumers and the environment.


Bob Lessard, or “Ol’ Trapper,” served in the Minnesota Senate as a Democrat for 26 years and helped establish the state’s Legacy Amendment, which funds game, wildlife and arts projects across the state through a dedicated sales tax. The longtime Democrat says he is running as a Republican t o protect the amendment from being raided for other purposes.

Before running for attorney general, Doug Wardlow served one term as a Republican House member from Eagan. He’s an attorney who was has worked on constitutional cases like eminent domain cases and religious freedom challenges. He’s endorsed by the party and running to do similar work on a statewide level, as well as help prosecutors in all 87 counties.

U.S. Senate

Al Franken’s sudden departure from the U.S. Senate late last year in response to allegations of sexual harassment prompted Dayton to appoint his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to the seat. Now she’s defending her spot in the general election and the primary, where a former Bush-era ethics counsel and DFL activist are challenging her from the left for the party’s nomination.


Nick Leonard is a DFL activist and attorney from Minneapolis who is positioning himself against Smith as the “true progressive” in the race. If he wins, Leonard said he will be the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Senate.

Richard Painter spent most of his life as a Republican and served as chief ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration. But Painter said he has left the Republican Party in the Trump era, and he has gained national attention in his criticisms of the president. He’s running as a Democrat for the Senate on an anti-platform: anti-Trump and anti-big money in politics. He’s also against the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota.

Tina Smith got her start in politics operating behind the scenes to help elect Democrats like former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and eventually Dayton. She served as both lawmakers’ chief of staff before joining Dayton on the ticket as lieutenant governor in 2014. She’s now defending the Senate seat after her appointment, winning the DFL Party’s backing and positioning herself as a progressive on issues like gun control, abortion rights and immigration.


Bob Anderson is a small business owner and “outsider candidate” who is closely aligning himself with the agenda of Trump in his race for the U.S. Senate.

Karin Housley is a real estate agent and two-term Republican senator from St. Mary’s Point. She won the GOP endorsement in the race for the Senate and is touting her work to prevent elder abuse, cut regulations and lower taxes for small businesses.

1st Congressional District


A three-time Republican candidate for the seat is being challenged for the nomination by a state senator. Tim Walz is stepping down to run for governor and Republicans are excited about their prospects in the district this year, which voted for Trump by 15 percentage points in 2016.

Carla Nelson is a three-term state senator from Rochester who previously served a term in the state House. She was a school teacher before going into politics. She’s running for Congress on bread and butter conservative issues like tax reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Jim Hagedorn is a conservative blogger and a former employee of the U.S. Treasury. He’s challenged Walz for the seat twice, coming within a percentage point of beating him in 2016. He is making his third run for the seat and was endorsed by the Republican Party.

Andrew Candler, a 30-year-old political newcomer from Caledonia, is running on an anti-abortion platform, saying he wants to start “another abolitionist movement” against “infanticide.”

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