Which one will take on Dayton?
It will be a political phenomenon like nothing Minnesotans have experienced in decades: a wide-open, four-candidate Republican primary election for governor Aug. 12.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” said candidate Kurt Zellers.
After the GOP endorsed losing candidates in the past two statewide elections, this year more governor wannabes decided to skip the party’s cumbersome endorsing process and jump directly into the primary. The winner will face DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in November.
Here’s a look at the four Republican contenders: Zellers, Scott Honour, Jeff Johnson and Marty Seifert.
When people ask Kurt Zellers, a Republican candidate for governor, why they should vote for him, he offers this pat answer: “I balanced the budget without a tax increase.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration — no single state representative can, all by himself, dictate the tax and spending policies that go into a multibillion-dollar state budget.
But that line is Zellers’ shorthand way of reminding people that he, as the speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2011, and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch were the lead Republicans in negotiating a $36 billion budget deal with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton.
It wasn’t pretty. It took a three-week government shutdown and borrowing $700 million from public schools and another $640 million from selling tobacco bonds to get it done.
But Republicans achieved their main goal for the year by erasing a projected $5 billion deficit without increasing state taxes.
Zellers’ leadership role in that deal is the centerpiece of his campaign.
“I don’t have to convince people that I won’t raise taxes,” the six-term lawmaker from Maple Grove said last week. “I don’t have to tell them what I might do or could do. I’ve actually done it.
“That’s our one difference,” he said, from the three other Republicans running in the Aug. 12 primary. The winner will take on Dayton in the Nov. 4 general election.
To underline his stance, he started airing TV spots across the state last week in which he promises, “I will never raise taxes.”
DFLers say it’s odd for Zellers to brag about a government shutdown.
“Only someone as out of touch with working Minnesotans as Kurt Zellers would think that shutting down state government is a victory,” Carrie Lucking, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota, said last week in a news release. “Putting 22,000 people out of work to protect big corporations and borrowing millions from our schools is hardly a victory for Minnesota.”
But Zellers contends that holding down taxes was and is a higher priority. He contends the next governor must cut taxes to attract and retain jobs. His Republican rivals — businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert — agree.
In addition to carrying the no-new-taxes banner, Zellers, 44, introduces himself to voters as a typical middle-class father. His wife, Kim, is an elementary school teacher. They have three children, ages 9, 8 and 5 months.
Businessman Scott Honour is a first-time candidate, but he’s getting the hang of retail campaigning.
At the Sherburne County Fair in Elk River last weekend, Honour had no qualms about strolling up to complete strangers and introducing himself as a Republican candidate for governor.
“I’m a businessman, not a politician,” he told three men seated at a beer garden picnic table. “I’m running because I think we need more common sense in St. Paul.”
A millionaire from Orono, Honour is betting a lot of his own money that Minnesotans believe a business leader is best-suited to govern the state.
He and his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, a first-term lawmaker and Realtor from St. Mary’s Point, have “spent our careers in the private sector getting things done. I think voters are looking for that,” Honour said.
By contrast, the self-proclaimed “outsider” noted, his rivals in the Aug. 12 Republican primary — Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers — “collectively have spent over half a century in politics.”
The other GOP candidates all have experience in shaping government policy. He doesn’t. But his business experience, he asserts, taught him valuable lessons that could make government work better.
Asked if he could manage the give-and-take to get things done at the Capitol, he replied, “I’ve been in more negotiations than any of these guys.”
Honour, who did not seek the GOP endorsement, also is telling Republicans his is the “only campaign that will have the resources” needed to defeat Dayton.
At the end of May, the political newcomer had raised $573,000 this year, more than all three of his Republican rivals combined, thanks in part to a $300,000 personal loan to his campaign.
Last week, he announced he had donated another $500,000, bringing his total for the current two-year cycle to more than $1 million.
Last fall, Honour disclosed that he earned $1.7 million in 2012, and he owns a $9 million home on Lake Minnetonka.
Still, he hasn’t run a highly visible campaign. Although he has aired some television and radio ads, the other candidates expected him to swamp them with TV spots. That hasn’t happened yet.
Members of the North Metro Tea Party cheered Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, when he bounded onto the Mermaid Ballroom stage in Mounds View for an evening forum this month.
The 150 partisans applauded when he pledged to cut taxes, slash government red tape and “fight Obamacare every step of the way.”
That’s standard fare for the four GOP candidates for governor competing in the Aug. 12 primary for the right to challenge Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton in November. But Johnson received a warmer tea party response than most pols. The master of ceremonies, Minnesota Tea Party Alliance President Jack Rogers, endorsed him before he handed over the microphone.
That was music to DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin’s ears. Democrats are trying to portray Johnson as a “tea party candidate.” They note that he’s spoken at many tea party meetings and has referred to members and himself as “we.”
Why is that a big deal? “There’s only one group that tests more negatively than the tea party, and that’s Congress,” Martin said.
But it might be difficult to make the tea party label stick to Johnson.
While the attorney, Hennepin County commissioner and former legislator embraces the tea party as “an important part of the coalition that I need to win,” he’s also a “big-tent guy” who welcomes support from all GOP factions.
He told the Mermaid Ballroom crowd that while he wants their support, he also is appealing to “liberty Republicans,” the business establishment and even moderates who voted for the Independence Party’s Tom Horner for governor in 2010.
Johnson won the GOP endorsement at the state party convention in Rochester in May because he had widespread support across party factions.
Republican activist Sheri Auclair of Minnetonka said she first saw Johnson’s skill as a “uniter” at the 2012 state party convention, where supporters of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battled for national convention slots. As tension mounted, Johnson, then the state’s Republican National committeeman, gave a speech that “tamed 2,500 activist delegates,” Auclair recalled. “It was just jaw-dropping.”
Johnson, 47, of Plymouth, is not a charismatic leader. He’s a thoughtful, mild-mannered Norwegian Lutheran.
In the dairy barn at the Dodge County Fair in Kasson last week, farmer Mary Buck told Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert that a torrent of local, state and federal regulations triggered her family’s decision to sell off their dairy herd in 2009.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Buck, of West Concord.
“I get it,” responded Seifert, who grew up on a farm near Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.
As a farm kid and lifelong resident of rural Minnesota, Seifert says he understands better than his political rivals the feeling on farms and small towns across the state that folks out there are being left behind by the Twin Cities metro area.
The former House minority leader told Buck that he is hearing similar messages from farmers and small-business owners across Minnesota: “Government is suffocating the private sector with regulations.” And he wants government off their backs.
After the candidate moved on, Buck said she hasn’t decided which gubernatorial candidate she’ll vote for, but Seifert impressed her.
“Our state needs a governor who understands the ag economy and ag issues,” she said. “I think he does get it.”
Seifert, 42, of Marshall, is the only Republican candidate for governor from what is euphemistically called “Greater Minnesota.” His three rivals in the Aug. 12 GOP primary — Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove — are all suburbanites. The winner will challenge DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in November.
Seifert says he doesn’t want to be labeled the “rural candidate.”
“My calendar is 50 percent metro and 50 percent rural,” he said. “I’ve spoken at five metro Rotary Clubs in the last three weeks.”
His most important distinguishing trait, he said, is bringing “the most diverse experience to the table.”
Since graduating from Southwest Minnesota State University, Seifert has been a public school teacher, college admissions counselor, 14-year legislator, real estate agent, small-business owner and hospital foundation administrator. He and his wife, Traci, live in Marshall with their two children.
“I’m the only lifer in the group,” he said, noting that the other candidates have spent a portion of their lives outside Minnesota.
Seifert calls himself a “mainstream conservative … not extreme.” Like the other GOP contenders, he calls for cutting taxes, shrinking government and strengthening schools.