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Setting the stage: State GOP chair talks shop about 2018 midterms

Minnesota Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan mingles with attendees at the governor's debate Friday, Aug. 17, at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service

NISSWA, Minn.—Compared to the typically one-on-one contests of general elections, primaries have a king-of-the-hill vibe—a whole slew of candidates, some serious contenders, some not, all scrapping tooth and nail for their party's nomination.

For the Minnesota Republicans, this year did shake out like that. That's because the winners of the primary were crowned long before Tuesday's election, said Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan on Friday, Aug. 17, at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa.

Every single party-endorsed federal- and state-level candidate won, she said—a little election tidbit that stands in stark contrast to the musical chairs-style infighting the DFL has seen this year and one that indicates GOP party leadership is walking lockstep with conservative voters.

"The primary election Tuesday night was a huge win for the Republican Party of Minnesota—every single one of our endorsed candidates and all the grassroots activists around the state. It speaks volumes," Carnahan said.

"We saw Tuesday in the primary our ground game is incredibly successful and it's delivering as it's supposed to."

Now comes the big dance—the 2018 midterms, with whispers of a potential "blue wave" overtaking Capitol Hill. Republican National Committee representatives said they're expecting the U.S. House to flip Democrat, yet Minnesota—despite its left-leaning history—represents a battleground where Republicans can turn the tables.

Johnson and T-Paw

In convincing fashion, party-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson trumped former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty with 168,502 votes (52.61 percent) to Pawlenty's 140,466 votes (43.86 percent) in the statewide primary. Johnson's win represents something of an upset.

Pawlenty boasted a robust $2.4 million war chest to Johnson's paltry $565,000 in a race that got ugly when Johnson touted himself as the only real conservative after a series of attack ads were released by the Pawlenty campaign. Pawlenty followed this up by calling Johnson a poser to his face during a Minnesota Public Radio debate shortly before the primary.

Much of this can be attributed to Johnson's campaign style, Carnahan said—a rugged, door-to-door style and road-trip mentality that served him well on the campaign trail.

"Jeff is one of the hardest-working candidates out there," Carnahan said. "He's connecting with voters on a fundamental level, not just speaking from a TV screen."

This stands in contrast to Pawlenty who, in Johnson's words, favored a strategy that entailed as few media interviews or debates as possible, so as to nix any possibility of critical press regarding his past tenure in office. Instead, Johnson said, Pawlenty was content to sit put and let his money do the talking.

Johnson also stands in contrast to Pawlenty in terms of their places in the Minnesota GOP—leaning just that much further to the right than Pawlenty, who bucked the party line on issues like gun regulation, climate change and mass transit.

"You might see the state lean more liberal in terms of social issues, but you will see the state leans more conservative when it relates to fiscal issues," Carnahan said.

"When you listen to Jeff's core message, it's about shrinking government. Government should not make decisions about how we live our lives, health care, education for our families, our business livelihood and the like."

Walking in the shadow of President Donald Trump, Carnahan said Johnson's candidacy stacks up favorably in the Nov. 6 general election, while he advocates for similar business-friendly policies as the president and the nation's economy is booming as a result.

The 8th Congressional District

While Pete Stauber won easily with 44,865 votes (89.9 percent) for the 8th Congressional District in a largely uncontested primary, his DFL counterpart Joe Radinovich showed a kind of dominance of his own—emerging victorious from a fractured field of hopefuls, buoyed with 30,444 votes (44 percent), while his main competition, retired Duluth newscaster Michelle Lee, came in a distant second at 18,952 votes (27 percent).

Maybe Radinovich's victory was in doubt for many—not Carnahan.

"The minute I heard he was running, I had to say, to everyone I knew, 'That's who we're running against or who Pete's running against in November,'" Carnahan said. "I expected Joe Radinovich to be the candidate."

His career was a solid indicator of his success, Carnahan said, as Radinovich's campaign visibly benefited from years spent as a right-hand aide and understudy to prominent DFL figures like former state Rep. John Ward, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Congressman Rick Nolan—with Radinovich's own stint as a state representative between 2012-2014 to boot.

While Radinovich's Minneapolis connections were a boon in the primary for DFL voters across the state—by virtue of campaign resources, financing and expertise—it's a double-edged sword, Carnahan said. Getting in bed with the Twin Cities elite might win the primary, but it doesn't sit well with voters in greater Minnesota.

With that in mind, Radinovich lacks Nolan's clout and rapport with rural voters—which, Carnahan noted, was barely enough for Nolan to eek out the 2014 and 2016 elections in a red-leaning district as it was.

Then, of course, there's Stauber waiting for Radinovich on Nov. 6—the party's top candidate in the nation, Carnahan said, who also happens to be campaigning in the district most likely to flip.

"Pete has been working this district now for well over a year, he's built his name I.D.," Carnahan said. "Frankly, he's the brightest star out of the all the (GOP) candidates running for Congress."

Wardlow's world

The race for state attorney general doesn't quite draw the kind of attention a congressional or gubernatorial race does—and for good reason, if one subscribes to the philosophy that attorneys general should simply protect the Constitution and stay out of partisan politics.

The primary between party-endorsed candidate Doug Wardlow and challenger Sharon Anderson might be an exception to the rule.

Lacking any official backing or little semblance of a traditional campaign, Anderson was a candidate who decried Muslim candidates as loyal to the Quran and Sharia over American citizens, cited prior custody battles with her husband and his mistress as political fodder, and advocated for beheadings as a preferred method of capital punishment.

Still, Anderson garnered 94,101 votes (32.08 percent) statewide, only second to Wardlow's 135,748 votes (46.28 percent).

Carnahan said she doesn't read much into these results or whether they indicate anything about the state's conservative voters and their political leanings. Instead, she chalked it up to a lack of familiarity with Wardlow by a large number of Minnesotans, coupled with some natural voter tendencies.

"From my understanding, she's one of those individuals she just puts their name (on the ballot), she puts her name everywhere," Carnahan said. "Part of it might be, hey, her name's on there—it's a common last name, Anderson --- and if you haven't had the exposure to who are endorsed candidates, maybe you err to a name."

That, Carnahan said, and female candidates get a 3-4 percent bump by virtue of being women, which works in Anderson's favor as well.

Now eyes are turning to the race between Wardlow and the DFL nominee, outgoing Congressman Keith Ellison, the six-term representative for the 5th District and the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Leading up the primary—when Ellison's own nomination still hung in the air—Wardlow was running TV ads billing himself as the only candidate who could stop Ellison.

"We like the matchup," said Carnahan, who characterised the race as not only conservative versus liberal, but a contest with even larger implications. She noted the political aspirations of Ellison, who in an earlier interview spoke of his intentions to band with other state attorneys general to oppose the policies of Trump.

"The biggest difference between Doug Wardlow and Keith Ellison is Keith wants to use the office to politicise issues," she said. "That's not what that office is intended for. The office is intended to uphold the Constitution and uphold the law."

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