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What to watch for in Wednesday night’s Dayton-Johnson debate

So far, Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson haven’t even had a casual encounter on the campaign trail, so this first head-to-head has some built-in intrigue.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost file photo by James NordGov. Mark Dayton

The first governor’s debate of the campaign season takes place Wednesday night in Rochester. 

Truth be told, it could be a rather dull affair.  

Still, Gov. Mark Dayton and his Republican challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, haven’t had even casual encounters in this campaign, so this first head-to-head has some built-in intrigue (Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet will also participate in the debates, so it might be better described as a head-to-head-to-head). 

Furthermore, a recent poll commissioned by the Star Tribune shows that 20 percent of the voters are still undecided in the race, which means that even with a double-digit lead, Dayton has something to lose. With that in mind, here are five things to look for Wednesday night: 

Can Jeff Johnson look like a governor? It’s an opportunity for Johnson to strut his gubernatorial stuff, show a mastery of policy, and force Dayton to acknowledge him as a competitor. “Dayton is running the classic rose garden strategy – campaigning by being governor, focusing on his accomplishments and not acknowledging or recognizing there’s a race,” said Michael Brodkorb, author of and a former Republican political operative.

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Johnson has to counter that by upending the story of Dayton’s accomplishments, directing his criticism at a spectrum of targets that is likely to include: MNSure, which Johnson will charge has become a bureaucratic nightmare; a labor market in which Johnson will say there are too many people forced to take lower-paying jobs; and a balanced budget that Johnson says comes as the result of ill-conceived tax increases.

How well does Dayton defend his record? Minnesota’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation. The MNsure glitches have affected, in reality, few people.  And the last time Republicans had bargaining power over the state budget – when the GOP held the legislature in 2011 — government shut down because of an impasse. At least that’s what Dayton will say, in so many words. And if he succeeds in making those claims convincing, he holds onto the status quo, which obviously benefits him as an incumbent with a double-digit lead over his Republican opponent. “Dayton can solidify his stature and standing to have these debates be as non-newsworthy as possible,” according to Brodkorb.  “A non-event — that’s a good job for Dayton.”

Jeff Johnson
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Jeff Johnson

Will Johnson make news? He needs to, and will likely try by offering stringent — even strident — criticism of the Dayton administration. He may try to needle Dayton, a governor who has demonstrated the ability to flare up and lash out. “Johnson has to show he’s a fighter, a scrapper, but in a respectful way,” said Brodkorb. 

Will either Johnson or Dayton offer a vision for Minnesota’s future? Johnson has to draw the contrasts between him and Dayton while also defining his own vision for the state. As Brodkorb and others agree, he must go beyond the “auditor-in-chief” image of the first Johnson TV ad. 

But the vision thing is Dayton’s biggest challenge as well. He has talked about his accomplishments, but voters want to know what’s next. Thus far, he has said little about what he wants to do in a second term.  A debate is an opportunity to articulate those plans, which, if they are provocative, might create news, but in a positive way for his campaign.

Will Hannah Nicollet seize the moment? Regardless of whether Johnson or Dayton is deemed the debate winner, it’s Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet who should score a victory. Barring a totally goofball performance, she has the most to gain. A total unknown, Nicollet’s appearance with Dayton and Johnson will undoubtedly raise her profile as a serious candidate. And, given the perilous state of the Independence Party these days, she needs it to.