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Half-united, half-divided, Minnesota Republicans pledge pragmatism in 2014 campaign

Republicans, stung by ideological purity in 2012’s losses, unite around a Senate candidate, but face a four-way gubernatorial fight that could test cohesion.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, center, speaking to delegates as running mate Bill Kuisle, right, looks on.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

The strategies of the four candidates who remain in the Republican race for governor share one tactic — broadening the base of voters.

That’s a tough job given that the number of primary voters are shrinking, not growing, and given that the primary takes place August 12. But it’s critical for unendorsed candidates Marty Seifert, Scott Honour, and Kurt Zellers who go into the primary without the party’s voter turnout apparatus. And it’s a good idea for endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson who would need more than the GOP faithful to defeat Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

“Part of my goal is, I want to expand the universe of people that think of themselves as Republicans,” said Honour, who made an appearance at the Republican convention in Rochester over the weekend but did not seek endorsement.

To prove that point, Honour and his choice for lieutenant governor, Woodbury state Sen. Karin Housley left the convention for an appearance in Duluth where the DFL was holding its endorsing convention.

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“The contest is not here [in Rochester],” said Zellers, who pledged to rally conservative Democrats and independents over issues like mining in northern Minnesota. 

The state Republican Party has been conducting a frank reappraisal of its priorities, outreach, and messages since the 2012 election when the GOP lost control of the legislature.

That’s why the delegates in Rochester displayed a pragmatic streak in their choice of endorsees. They endorsed businessman Mike McFadden for the U.S. Senate over the more ideologically pure Chris Dahlberg. (McFadden may have a primary challenge from state representative Jim Abeler.) For governor, they chose Johnson, viewed by delegates as more centrist than state senator Dave Thompson.

When Johnson was asked about the first steps of his campaign, instead of offering campaign rhetoric he said, “What frankly the Democrats are really good at is telling stories about how laws affect real people and that’s what we need to do a better job of.”

Sixth District congressional candidate Tom Emmer, in his speech to delegates, pivoted from the conservative pitches he made when he ran for governor against Dayton in 2010. “We have to be for something, not against everything,” he said. “We must stop the circular firing squads.”

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Mike McFadden greeting delegates during the GOP
convention on Friday evening.

The last remark referred to Emmer supporter David FitzSimmons, who was denied Republican endorsement for state representative from St. Michael for his vote to approve same-sex marriage.

In the ultimate demonstration of party practicality, Emmer and Fitzsimmons, who was working the delegates on behalf of McFadden, appear to have been responsible for securing Michele Bachmann’s endorsement of McFadden in a statement that was circulated among delegates.

Of course, the party cannot claim unity with a four-way primary for the nomination for Governor. And reaching out to new voters may be more difficult while trying to elbow aside the competition at the same time.

But the delegates, candidates, and party leaders can legitimately claim they’ve made progress since election losses in 2012 as they work to validate that progress with the voters of 2014.