Johnson wins GOP nod for governor: Nominee will face 4 challengers in August primary

Published 9:45 am Monday, June 2, 2014

By Bill Salisbury

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

ROCHESTER — Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson won a dramatic endorsement for governor at the Minnesota Republican Party convention here Saturday night.

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Johnson, a former Republican National Committeeman who is popular with all the warring factions in the GOP, earned the party’s backing on a bizarre fourth ballot after one of his two main opponents, state Sen. Dave Thompson, withdrew from the race and endorsed Johnson and the other major contender, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, released his delegates and announced he would run against the endorsed candidate in the party’s Aug. 12 primary.

“I’m going to enter the primary,” Seifert said, sparking a chorus of boos from the 2,000 delegates who had been slogging through their second drawn-out endorsing contest in two days.

When Seifert stepped to the podium, party leaders and most delegates assumed he was going to withdraw. Instead, he encouraged supporters to go home, a move that could have left the convention short of the quorum it needed to endorse.

“That was uncalled for,” an angry state Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey told the delegates as Seifert departed. He accused the candidate of violating the party’s rules in order to subvert the convention.

Seifert’s gambit didn’t work. After party leaders pleaded with delegates to stay and cast one more vote, Johnson was endorsed with 90 percent on the fourth and final ballot.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson said he would appeal to the hearts of voters and avoid a losing Republican strategy that relies solely on logic.

“We’ve got to speak to what people care about,” he said.

He will face four challengers in the GOP primary. In addition to Seifert, Orono businessman Scott Honour and state Rep. Kurt Zellers are running in that intraparty contest. The winner will oppose DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in the November election.

At the start of the six-hour gubernatorial endorsement show, Republicans looked like they might be in for another long night of voting after a 10-ballot contest for the party’s U.S.

Senate endorsement that started early Friday afternoon and didn’t end until 1 p.m. Saturday, when the convention finally picked Sunfish Lake businessman Mike McFadden as its candidate.

In the gubernatorial race, Johnson jumped to a narrow lead on the first ballot with 32 percent of the votes, followed by Thompson with 30 percent and Seifert with 29 percent. A fourth candidate, political newcomer Rob Farnsworth of Hibbing, received 8 percent.

Johnson, of Plymouth, expanded his lead to 39 percent on the second ballot, with Thompson and Seifert tied at 30 percent. Farnsworth failed to meet the minimum threshold and was dropped from the race.

By the third ballot, Johnson’s lead had increased to 45 percent to 28 percent each for the two remaining contenders.

At that point, Thompson announced to the convention, “I could keep going, but I see no reasonable path to victory.” He endorsed Johnson and called for the other candidates to follow suit.

That’s when Seifert surprised the convention with his announcement that he was leaving Rochester and heading to the primary. He had never pledged to abide by the party’s endorsement, but his move angered party leaders.

“That was the most classless performance by a candidate that I have ever seen,” said former state Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner, who had voted for Seifert on the first ballot.

The endorsement means Johnson will have the party’s election apparatus, such as volunteer lists, phone banks and get-out-the-vote operations, behind him. But the state party is still $1 million in debt and is unlikely to be able to provide a lot of cash.

Honour could spend millions of his own money on the campaign, while Zellers, the former Minnesota House speaker, is the best-known candidate in the field and a proven fundraiser.

In their speeches to the convention, Johnson, Thompson and Seifert portrayed themselves mainstream conservatives who have proven they can appeal to the independent and conservative Democratic voters they would need to carry the state.

Johnson, an attorney and former state legislator, demonstrated his diplomatic skills as a Republican National Committeeman by working to unite the “liberty Republican,” social conservative and old-guard establishment factions in the party. The Detroit Lakes native said he has rural roots, has “won big” in the suburbs and has worked closely with inner city residents on county programs.

“If I am the candidate, we will take back the suburbs in 2014 for Republicans” and won’t “concede Minneapolis and St. Paul to the Democrats,” he said.

—Distributed by MCT Information Services.