We breakdown the state of the GOP race for governor. We offer a similar analysis of the GOP Senate contest here.
The seasons have changed significantly since our last detailed analysis of the GOP governor’s race – and so has the political climate.
Last July, Minnesota’s political commentariat had all but official declared Gov. Mark Dayton the winner in his 2014 re-election effort. Sporting a 57% approval rating, despite a legislative session that saw no shortage of controversial bills (including a warehouse tax even the Star Tribune editorial board begged Dayton to reconsider), Dayton looked in good position to cruise through the fall and winter political doldrums.
Fast-forward six months and Mark Dayton’s numbers are dropping as quickly as the temperature. Dragging a 52% disapproval rating into the 2014 session, Dayton has been eager to recast his imagine as a traditional tax-and-spend liberal, suggesting he’d return the bulk of Minnesota’s projected $1.1 billion surplus (minus erasing the shift in education dollars) as tax cuts. The reception to the concept has only been slightly warmer than absolute zero in the DFL caucus, framing a potential conflict between Dayton’s yearning for re-election aid and the legislative desires for more spending.
Tax cuts or not, Dayton’s greatest potential saving grace may simply be his opposition.
The GOP field has grown since last summer, not unexpectedly. But the trendline towards an expensive and divisive primary has only increased. Despite the last significant GOP primary occurring 20 years ago, amid a battle between an incumbent moderate-to-liberal governor and his party’s conservative base, the potential 2014 iteration appears less ideologically grounded and more egotistically-based, with a thin veneer of practicality. And thus the battle lines have been drawn between those who want to preserve the endorsement process and those who wish to replace it.
The Caucus Crusaders
There was little surprise in October when Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and St. Sen. Dave Thompson finished first and second (with 35% and 27% respectively) at the GOP’s State Central straw poll. Both had been favorites of the party’s activist base for years – Johnson for his tax watchdog blog and status; Thompson for his talk radio past – and both were the only candidates thus far willing to abide by the endorsement process. Despite being technically rivals, Johnson and Thompson have seemingly been chummy on the campaign trail, perhaps knowing one may need the other to help forestall a competitive August primary.
If Thompson and Johnson appear similar on the issues and general demeanor, the reactions to each’s prospective nomination are radically different. Thompson has been cast, fairly or not, with the party’s “Liberty” or Ron Paul wing, leading more than a few more moderate/establishment/pragmatic activists (pick your descriptor) to worry about fracturing the party should he win the nomination. Johnson has provoked far fewer concerns among the same class, albeit with trepidation that the soft-spoken Scandinavian isn’t ready for the rough-and-tumble attacks from Alida Messinger’s pocketbook.
The Primary Prospects
If the top-line finishers of the October straw poll didn’t surprise anyone – the third place finisher did. Former Minority Leader Marty Seifert gained 18% as a write-in candidate, leading the Marshall-area politico to announce his candidacy shortly thereafter. What Seifert did not declare, unlike in his 2010 bid for governor, was fidelity to the endorsement process. Seifert’s opening campaign salvo, defining himself as anything other than a “conservative purist,” certainly suggests Marty is thinking more about August (or November) than May, while his recent support to abolish the Met Council shows the ideological tightrope he’s trying to walk between going for the endorsement and eschewing it.
We said in July that a potential Seifert candidacy could suck the life out of the campaign of former Speaker Kurt Zellers, and little has happened since then to refute that possibility. Only 7.6% voted for Zellers in the straw poll and it’s hard to see what constituency Zellers can effectively court. Zellers’ handling of the House Caucus and involvement in other GOP primaries makes him a long-shot for the endorsement and his bid to be the “establishment” candidate is difficult without a Seifert-less field. Zellers’ prospects are likely limited if he returns to the House, suggesting he might gamble his fortunes on a primary.
Speaking of fortunes being gambled, venture capitalist Scott Honour has been rumored to be spending massive amounts of money on consultants and online ads. The results have been not rewarding, at least yet. Honour garnered only 4% at the straw poll and in what limited theoretical primary polling exists, comes in last at 6% (Zellers “leads” with 12%, and undecided looks poised for a landslide at 44%). Honour is increasingly looking like this cycle’s Kelly Doran, the developer who spent $1.6 million in campaigns for Senate and Governor before withdrawing shortly after the DFL caucus in 2006. In either event, Honour is going to need to spend heartily just to raise his name ID, yet alone compete in August.
The Professor and Mary Ann
Educator Robert Farnsworth, a Hibbing-area teacher, isn’t likely going to wrestle the nomination away from anyone or win a contested primary. But Farnsworth has some appeal within the ranks of the base, gaining 6% of the straw poll (not in last place).
Many assumed that St. Sen. Julie Rosen would enter the race, with liberal analysts claiming her as the GOP’s “only hope” in 2014 this summer. But as Rosen has hesitated, perhaps motivated in part by push-back against her role in passing the Vikings stadium legislation, first-term St. Sen. Karin Housley has suggested she’ll jump into the gender gap and run for governor. Housley, wife of former NHL star Phil Housley, has said she’ll make her decision in January – only a month ahead of caucuses. Considering that the State Senate isn’t up in 2014, Housley may be making a token bid to increase her standing, laying the groundwork for 2018 or beyond.
So Where Do Things Stand?
Many of the GOP’s financiers are assuming that a competitive August primary is a foregone conclusion. That doesn’t have to happen.
Expect the field to narrow post February to Seifert, Johnson and Thompson, with Honour an outlier depending on how willing he is to spend his own money (he’s been aggressively raising funds instead). If Honour passes on spending what it would take to win in August, it places the pressure on Seifert as the only remaining likely candidate who has not committed to abide by the endorsement. Seifert would probably run in a large, contested primary field if he’s not the nominee. He might change his mind should he face only one candidate (Johnson or Thompson), not counting the likely minor candidates who would file.
Frankly, the real power over whether there’s a primary or not is in the hands of those holding the party’s largest purse strings (Bob Cummins, Norm Coleman and his American Action Network, and AFP Minnesota, among others). Whether they choose to coalesce around the nominee or not could be the difference between victory or defeat.