The 2014 race for governor of Minnesota had been placed in the “Safe Democrat” category since it began in earnest. Potential Republican opponents to the Democratic (Democratic-Farmer-Labor in this state) incumbent Mark Dayton were numerous, but most voters told pollsters the state was going in the right direction. Unemployment was lower than the national average, and Minneapolis was growing again
and seemingly booming with new housing construction.
But not all was rosy for the DFL. President Obama, who had carried the state twice, was down to 38 percent approval in the state. The liberals who had won control of the legislature in the 2012 election overreached in some of their legislation, forcing day-care workers to join a union, constructing a costly new state senate office building, and creating an often dysfunctional health care program called MNsure that even Dayton had to concede was riddled with mistakes. The governor and the legislature also raised state income taxes by $2 billion in his first two years (and then called it “tax reduction” when, after an inevitable surplus, they lowered the increase by half).
Nevertheless, Dayton’s poll numbers remained high until the beginning of this year, and even after that, he maintained a double-digit lead over any of his potential rivals. A department store heir, Dayton had been state auditor and U.S. senator, but had not previously run for reelection to any office he held. Occasional poor health, and several surgeries during his first term, led to speculation that, now 67, he might not run again.
But he finally announced he would run for a second term. He then abruptly dumped his lieutenant governor, Yvonne Solon, a popular figure from the northeast region of the state known as “the Range,” replacing her with his Twin Cities chief of staff, Tina Smith, who had not previously run for elected office. This move was not well-received in DFL circles in the Range, usually a DFL stronghold.
Four major Republicans sought their party endorsement. In Minnesota, candidates first face party endorsement conventions before running in the primary. In recent years, some candidates in both parties (including Dayton) have bypassed the endorsement process. But the eventual GOP nominee Jeff Johnson, a lawyer, former state representative, and now a county commissioner, won the backing of the convention and emerged victorious over his three main rivals in the August primary.
With the party organization solidly behind Johnson, he then faced the formidable task of taking on an incumbent with 100 percent name recognition, a powerful DFL organization behind him, and a personal fortune enabling him to spend whatever necessary for his campaign.
A recent poll, conducted by the largest newspaper in the state, showed Dayton at only 45 percent, Johnson at 33 percent, and about 20 percent undecided. The newspaper and its poll have long had the reputation of pro-DFL bias; true to form, the headline was “Dayton leads Johnson by double digits.” Even taking the poll at face value, however, the governor was well under 50 percent, always a danger sign for an incumbent, and the Dayton campaign immediately began sending out worried calls for support and donations. The DFL has now also called in former president Bill Clinton to rally the party base.
Johnson, meanwhile, has relatively low name recognition, less money on hand, no personal fortune, and an untried GOP get-out-the-vote effort.
Johnson likes to point out that he has always been underestimated, including when he ran for the state legislature, for GOP national committeeman, for county commissioner in the state’s largest county, and, finally, for the gubernatorial nomination—all of which he did win. He further argues that he will do much better than the GOP nominee who lost in 2010 by only 8,000 votes. He cites the state’s conservative northwestern 7th district, where both Johnson and his wife were born and raised, the 3rd district, where he has served as state representative and county commissioner for many years, and the growing Rochester area, where his lieutenant governor choice lives. Another area where he is likely to outperform previous GOP candidates is in the Range, where polling shows the
Republicans already 2 points ahead of the DFL, and the Republican congressional candidate, Stewart Mills, seems on his way to upsetting incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan.