The first few days of June were a time of celebration for Minnesota Republicans.
After Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson was not endorsed on the first ballot for re-election at the DFL State Convention on June 2, she withdrew her name from consideration and, days later, announced she would run for governor.
Amid the chain reaction of candidate filings that followed — with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison deciding to run for attorney general, which created an opening for his seat in the Fifth Congressional District — Republicans were quick to brand the DFL Party in “disarray.” The hashtag #DFLDumpsterFire was added to nearly every tweet from Republicans as they watched DFL candidate after DFL candidate file to run against each other.
But while Republicans reveled in political schadenfreude, few mentioned the obvious problem: The road ahead for the GOP in Minnesota is anything but smooth. In fact, Minnesota Republicans face a their own minefield over the coming months. Like the DFL, the GOP has its own hotly contested primaries for governor and a congressional seat. And like Democrats, they too will need to heal any intraparty bruises if they want to be successful in November.
Electability — and Trump — key in guv race
In the race for the Republican nomination for governor, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is the endorsed candidate for governor of the Republican Party of Minnesota. But Johnson announced his bid eleven months before former Gov. Tim Pawlenty got in the race, which came after Republicans had already elected delegates to their state convention.
And though the GOP endorsement does give Johnson some organizational advantages to assist his campaign, Pawlenty has already built a fundraising and political operation that far exceeds Johnson’s. As a result, Minnesota Republicans are now in the middle of most substantive challenge to an endorsed candidate for statewide office since 1994, when Republicans endorsed Allen Quist over incumbent Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. Carlson defeated Quist with over 66 percent of the vote in the primary.
As with Quist-Carlson, Pawlenty’s supporters tend to tout his electoral successes as a critical reason to back him. Pawlenty is the last Republican to win statewide office, winning the governor’s office in 2006 by getting over 1 million votes, joining Carlson as the only Republican governor candidates to reach the “Million Vote Club.”
On issues that are important to Republican primary voters, Pawlenty has a long record of vetoing tax increases and in pushing tax cuts. He also twice signed conceal and carry laws. And while Johnson has long positioned himself as the lone voice of reason on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, being one of seven votes on the board has mostly provided him the opportunity to stand out from the crowd by voting no.
But the perception of electability is not the only key difference between the two candidates. The other is Trump, part of a Republican intramural battle will be on full display Wednesday night, when the president visits Duluth. Johnson has been an outspoken Trump backer since the summer of 2016, and has been working hard to get an endorsement from Trump and to be invited up on the big stage Wednesday night with other GOP candidates. Pawlenty, who was critical of Trump during the 2016 elections, has been more circumspect, and has been resolutely noncommittal about even attending the Duluth event.
As we get closer to August, Pawlenty’s strategy of focusing on the general election may get more difficult, given that Johnson’s only chance to defeat Pawlenty in the primary is by making it a one-on-one battle.
CD1: The one that got away?
Yet the governor’s race is not the only serious GOP primary battle. In Minnesota’s First Congressional District, Republican-endorsed Jim Hagedorn is being challenged by state Sen. Carla Nelson for the Republican nomination.
As with Johnson, this is Hagedorn’s third bid for higher elective office. In both 2014 and 2016, Hagedorn lost to U.S. Rep Tim Walz, the most recent defeat in a year when Donald Trump won the First Congressional District by almost 15 points.
Given how the political winds favored Republicans that year, many Republicans, both in and out of Minnesota, believed he should have won that race — a criticism that has followed Hagadorn into the 2018 contest. So too has Hagedorn’s record of sexist comments about female politicians; in the era of the #MeToo movement, the attack ads against Hagedorn practically write themselves. Earlier this year, a commentary in the The Washington Examiner — not known as a liberal rag — wondered whether Hagedorn was the worst Republican candidate in America.
All that means the Republicans, no less than Democrats, should prepare themselves for a wild few months of campaigning. Even if the perceived chaos inside the DFL Party has generated a lot more attention, Republicans are also a long way from being ready for November.