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Who will take on Dayton in 2014? Some GOP names surface

State Sen. Dave Thompson, state Rep. Kurt Zellers, and Wayzata businessman Scott Honour are emerging as leading candidates.

State Rep. Kurt Zellers sends out news releases, independent of his caucus, criticizing the DFL’s tax and spending proposals.

State Sen. Dave Thompson appears at three congressional district conventions last weekend.

Wayzata businessman Scott Honour speaks at last week’s fundraiser in Edina for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

All three have joined the list of Republicans who are considering a run for governor in 2014.

thompson portrait

Sen. Dave Thompson

Thompson is the most direct about his intentions. “Yes” is his answer when asked if he’s looking at the governor’s race. “I believe that the current governor is taking the state in the wrong direction and we need to move in a fiscally prudent direction, which we are not now,” he said.

Besides fiscal issues, Thompson explains that his priority is education. “I would identify underperforming schools and give parents an alternative — school funding should follow the student not a school building,” he said. “The situation we have right now allows people with means to find alternatives. But people who don’t have discretionary income — their children are stuck and that is anathema.”

Zellers, former House speaker, is less specific about his plans but more pointed in criticism of DFL control of state government, which it gained after defeating Republicans in 2012.

‘Tax assault’

“Democrats in the Minnesota House proposed a massive new increase in government spending…,” he stated in a news release. “This all out ‘tax assault’ on middle class Minnesotans grows government but does nothing to grow the jobs people need.”

In an interview, he labeled the state’s new health care exchange “a wish and prayer. A $190 million bet that we can save money and help more people get health care.”

zeller portrait

MinnPost/James Nord
Rep. Kurt Zellers

Those sound like fighting words from a candidate-to-be, but Zellers isn’t ready to commit, yet. “I’m definitely not closing any doors,” he said, adding, “There are very few places that I haven’t held a press conference or raised money for a Republican cause.”

Like Zellers and Thompson, other Republicans in the mix as gubernatorial prospects – state Sen. David Hann, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, House Minority Leader Matt Dean, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson — are elected officials familiar to Republican activists.

The outlier and outsider is 44-year-old Honour, who recently retired from the Gores Group venture capital firm. In a news release, the firm said Honour was leaving to “focus on public service and charitable activities.” In an email, Honour said he was not yet giving any interviews.

Honour raised money for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential run, then joined the Romney team, where Minnesotans involved in the Romney effort say he more than exceeded expectations. He’s considered politically astute if not experienced and well connected and respected. At the Chris Christie fundraiser last week at the Edina Country Club, political guru Vin Weber concluded the event by calling on Honour to give the last speech.

All the leading potential candidates have the ability to make it through the Republican gauntlet into a general election battle with Mark Dayton.  And they have weaknesses.

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Pros and cons

Blois Olson, political commentator and public relations consultant, views Zeller’s frequent media outreach as a move to a bigger political stage. “He is the prototypical suburban dad and viewed as a conservative, a softer line conservative,” Olson said.

But, Olson said, Zellers may be too much the retail politician. “The media and others picked up that he was being particularly calculating on issues,” like the stadium and the right-to-work amendment.

Thompson doesn’t have that problem. He is a red-meat conservative with a gift for communication that he is using to flesh out the conservative message with inclusive issues like education. But Thompson, noted one Republican consultant, has weak support in the business community and a limited fund-raising base — factors that demand that he get the Republican endorsement.

honour portrait

Scott Honour

Honour would have the fewest problems with fund-raising and the most with getting a Republican endorsement. He and Zellers are seen as candidates who might even challenge an endorsed candidate in a primary, especially if the 2014 primary is moved to a date in June.

Ben Golnik, former executive director of the Minnesota Republican Party and a supporter of an earlier primary, believes a primary is the best path to a win in November.  “I would advise anyone right now to look at the primary,” he said.  “The endorsement is as weak as it’s ever been because of the debt the party is in.”

No one doubts that a Republican gubernatorial candidate is going to need that momentum.  “Dayton is going to be tough to beat,” according to Olson. “The Democrats are going to be so energized in the battle to hold on to the Legislature and the governor’s office.”

So Republicans are promoting a come-one, come-all approach to a list of candidates. Are they ideal?  Golnik laughed. “The ideal candidate — a female from the suburbs — she’s not out there,” he said.

But he and other Republicans say they are encouraged that their list of prospects offers the kind of scope and variety from which a viable Dayton challenger will emerge.