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Style wars: it’s not policy differences defining GOP governor candidates

Video of the MPR candidate roundtable courtesy of the UpTake.

Now we know: It’s the pragmatist, the populist, the battle-proven, and the outsider.

Otherwise known as Jeff Johnson, Marty Seifert, Kurt Zellers and Scott Honour, the men vying to be the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota drew plenty of distinctions in their personalities — if not their policies — in their first big debate Wednesday.

The four participated in an hour-long roundtable on Minnesota Public Radio, the first of several get-togethers prior to the August 12 primary. They offered voters an indication of their governing style, even while making it clear that the substance of their policies would be very similar. 

“We’re all Republicans,” Zellers observed.  “We’re not going to go off on a tangent.”

On improving the economy, for example, all four agreed the state should cut taxes and regulations. But how they got there revealed much about themselves, and the personas of their campaigns.  

Former Speaker of the House Zellers relived former battles, recounting his work to reduce the growth of the state budget in 2011 and 2012. 

Seifert, showing a populist edge often employed by former Gov. Jesse Ventura, responded, “I would have vetoed the budget that Kurt Zellers passed.”

Honour replied like a man who is used to running the show, and described a budget plan that would immediately reduce ten percent of the state’s administrative costs.

Johnson acknowledged that there are political realities, and said he’d do a top to bottom audit of the state budget, starting with the human services budget.  

Perhaps nothing revealed the gaps in style rather than substance more than the candidates’ approach to MNsure — the Republicans’ number one talking point when it comes to criticizing the Dayton administration. All want to dismantle it, but each offered a different shade of gray when it comes to how their administrations would approach doing so.

“What I have said I would do is, number one, apply for a waiver from Obamacare,” said Johnson, the lawyer and the technician. 

“I am the only one that’s calling for the elimination of MNSure,” said Honour, the executive. 

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Zellers offered another war story.  “I fought against it from ever becoming a law,” he said.  

Don’t sweat the details, was Seifert’s advice.  “We need to start talking about health care, not about insurance companies and policies.” 

And so it went: On transportation, education, and right-to-work policies for state employees. Notably, almost as if pre-arranged, the four candidates paired off, two-by-two, for the obligatory pecking order, with Seifert taking on Zellers, Honour taking on Johnson.

On the issue of right-to-work, for example, Zellers said he’d advocate “paycheck protection,” which would prohibit unions for state employees from automatically deducting union dues.    

“There’s a better chance of me having hair than a DFL controlled Senate in passing right to work,” responded the bald-as-Ventura Seifert. 

Johnson also acknowledged the challenge of changing union requirements for state workers with a DFL Senate. To which Honour responded, “Jeff, you have a defeatist attitude here.”

Johnson’s comeback: “There’s a difference between having a defeatist attitude and being honest with everyone.”

So here’s a little test.  Each candidate was asked to summarize his credentials to take on Mark Dayton.  Which candidate gave which response?

A. “I’m the only one that faced off against Mark Dayton and won.”

B. “I was endorsed by the most active, engaged Republicans because they see me as having the best chance to beat Mark Dayton.”

C. “I’m the only candidate with the full Minnesota life experience.” 

D. “I’m the only candidate with business experience.”

The Answers: Kurt Zellers, Jeff Johnson, Marty Seifert, Scott Honour. And if you didn’t figure it out, don’t worry. There are still several more debates before the primary. 

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/31/2014 - 10:46 am.

    Vote Dayton and end the

    goofy rhetoric.

  2. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 07/31/2014 - 11:47 am.

    The 10% cut

    reminds me of Gov. Pawlenty’s state hiring freeze which he implemented in order to cut spending – and which resulted in his having more employees at the end of the freeze than he had when the freeze began.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/31/2014 - 12:13 pm.

    Style is all you have

    When you got no substance.

  4. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/31/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    Define Populist

    Identifying Rep. Seifert as a “populist” seems a stretch. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is often called that. So is author/commentator Pat Buchannan. Are those three all of the same political and economic mindset? I think not.

    John Emerson penned a terrific article in last November’s Counter Punch magazine about the history of populism, showing that it’s true definition is slippery at best and depended on what time period we are referencing and whom we are identifying as such.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/31/2014 - 01:47 pm.

    How to beat Emmer?

    Granted they’re vying for partisan votes now; but the real question is what any of them will do to surpass Emmer’s performance vs Dayton. This year will be a tougher fight too, given that Dayton has surpassed the rather low expectations set by his embarrassing Senate term. My feeling is that most voters have no opinion on MNSure & thus it’s not a ding against Dayton. The economy is likewise doing pretty well & won’t swing voters to the GOP. Looks to me like a tall hill to climb to beat Dayton. Who’d a thunk it?

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/31/2014 - 03:53 pm.


      To add to the mix, the Minnesota GOP is still struggling to bring in large donors after their fiasco balancing their own budget. A couple of years ago they couldn’t pay their rent and lawyer’s bills and consequently donations dried up right before they went into election season. Now here we sit two years later and while they’ve got some money in the bank, they still haven’t fully recovered to the point where they need to be to support their candidates.

      It’s yet another tough hill for them to climb in a whole series of hills. Not exactly a mountain range, but they still have to spend a lot of time and effort trudging uphill while their opponents concentrate on sprinting to the finish line.

  6. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 07/31/2014 - 04:50 pm.

    Felt sorry for them!

    I listened to most of this conversation yesterday. I felt sorry for them because there is so little bad news,besides the Twins, in Minnesota.

    It is fun to contrast the news on the business page and from Greater MSP with these candidates’ perception of the MN economy. Their talk about businesses fleeing the state (I don’t think that anyone mentioned Medtronic moving to Ireland! 🙂 ). The only articles I see about businesses fleeing the state are about companies moving to San Francisco which is 20x more liberal and regulatory than MN.

    It is fun to contrast their negative opinion of rail and transit investments with those of the metro chambers of commerce and our Fortune 500 companies.

    It is fun to contrast their opinion of our state exchange with the strategic move of United Health Group to get engaged in twice as many state exchanges as they did this year.

    I think that it will be a long fall for whoever wins the GOP primary.

  7. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 07/31/2014 - 10:20 pm.


    Just jokes

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 08/01/2014 - 07:29 am.


    I think they should focus on the big “government spending” increase he signed off on.

    They have already started Ads regarding the Senate office building expenditure.

    Maybe his signing the marriage equality and anti-bullying bills when almost half the state was against at least the first issue.

    His push to unionize day care providers and build the new stadium.

    And their was that HUGE bonding bill that we will paying off for a long time.

    Yes. I think they have enough to energize their base and sway some moderates. Though I agree it will be an uphill battle.

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