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

Debate reveals major contrasts among Mary Seifert, Kurt Zellers, Scott Honour and Jeff Johnson — at least when it comes to their personalities.

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. 

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“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.”

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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.