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Economy’s strength poses message challenge for GOP governor candidates

A steady recovery also could hold political benefits for incumbents in 2014 if independents believe Minnesota is on the right track.

A steady recovery also could hold political benefits for incumbents in 2014 if independents believe Minnesota is on the right track.
Minnesota House of Representatives Public Information Services

Good news about Minnesota’s economy continues to roll in.

Minnesota employers keep adding jobs and the state’s unemployment rate is 5.3 percent, well below the national level of 7.6 percent.

Among major U.S. cities, the Twin Cities metro area has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 4.7 percent.

On Wednesday, we learned that Minnesota’s tax collections exceeded previous revenue forecasts by $463 million when the fiscal year ended June 30. The Minnesota Department of Management and Budget cited “strong economic growth” as the reason for the extra money.

Right track in 2014?

The fact that Minnesota’s economy is solidly recovering from the Great Recession is welcome news for all Minnesotans. A steady recovery also could hold political benefits for incumbents in 2014 if independents believe Minnesota is on the right track.

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Developing compelling economic messages that will persuade swing voters may be particularly challenging for the ultimate GOP challenger who’ll face Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton next year.

In the latest Minnesota Poll, conducted June 11 to 13, Dayton had an approval rating of 57 percent.

Four men from the Twin Cities suburbs are competing to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee.

Only one, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth, has waged a statewide race. In 2006, Johnson garnered 40.7 percent of the general election vote when he lost to DFLer Lori Swanson in the attorney general’s contest.

At this early stage in the election cycle, Johnson, Rep. Kurt Zellers, Sen. Dave Thompson and businessman Scott Honour are focusing their campaign activities on Republican activists.

It remains to be seen whether the GOP candidate will be determined by a broad cross-section of Minnesotans in a primary or whether Republicans will rally around a candidate selected at the state party’s convention in 2014.

Regardless of the GOP selection process, if the economy is humming along it may be challenging for Republicans to craft a message that connects with general election voters who don’t follow politics on a daily basis.

Voters who aren’t hard-core conservatives or liberals typically need compelling reasons to toss an incumbent out of office, so the Republican nominee will need a crisp change agenda to be competitive.

Better educational outcomes, lower taxes and less government regulation will resonate with the Republican base. But if Minnesota’s economy is in good shape in the fall of 2014, Dayton may be in the right place at the right time to wage his re-election bid.

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However, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Republican legislators argue that the governor and majority DFL legislators have enacted business sales taxes that could restrain economic growth.

Business sales tax skirmish

After the summer vacation season subsides, pressure will build on the Legislature and Dayton to repeal sales taxes on the repair and maintenance of business equipment and on storage and warehousing services of business-related goods.

That important fight will play out in the 2014 session. But it’s hard to see how that topic would become the defining issue of the 2014 campaign.

While the governor is a well-known quantity in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties, the four Republican candidates have a tall hill to climb to become familiar personalities on a statewide basis.

Political junkies know Zellers and Thompson, but all four of the Republicans need to build their brand reputations with the general electorate. To move beyond the suburbanite label, expect the candidates to brandish their rural credentials.

Building a statewide ID

Three of the four Republican candidates have roots in western Minnesota or North Dakota, which they will be highlighting when they court rural convention delegates. Zellers grew up in Devils Lake, N.D., and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Thompson, who graduated from high school in East Grand Forks on the Minnesota side of the Red River, also graduated from UND. Johnson, who was raised in Detroit Lakes, Minn., got his bachelor’s degree from Concordia College in Moorhead.

Honour, a Fridley native, is the only one of the four GOP candidates who has not spent considerable time in the Red River Valley, where Minnesota border business people keep a careful watch on the differences between Minnesota and North Dakota tax policies.

When the Dayton administration disclosed last week that it was ending the fiscal year with surplus cash, it explained that the money would flow to local school districts. Previous legislatures had borrowed the money, and the state is now accelerating the payback to schools.

In a statement, Dayton said:  “According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Minnesota had the fifth-fastest growing economy in the country in 2012. Our state’s strong economic growth has enabled us to work our way out of previous budget deficits and repay most of what we owed our school districts. More work remains, but we have made important progress.”

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If Dayton runs on the themes of progress and economic growth, the GOP nominee’s challenge will be crafting a positive alternative vision that connects with swing voters.

Fedor can be reached at She is on Twitter @LizFedor.