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Primary offers critical test for GOP endorsement process

After a series of missed opportunities, Republican party insiders question whether the endorsement process still produces candidates that can win statewide.

This year, primaries aren’t just for the Democrats, but the first Republican gubernatorial primary in more than two decades isn’t expected to be a big show.
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Jeff Kolb is a typical Republican primary voter. He’s active in politics in his suburban Crystal community. He’s paid close attention to the campaigns of Jeff Johnson, Scott Honour, Marty Seifert and Kurt Zellers, the four candidates competing in the primary Tuesday to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton this fall. But he won’t decide who he’ll vote for in the contest until he’s standing at the ballot box.  

“This has been such a lackluster, boring, sleepy campaign,” Kolb said. “For the first nine or 10 months of it, each guy stood on a stage and said, ‘I agree with that guy, and I agree with that guy.’”

Kolb and Republican voters across the state are in the middle of the same big experiment: The first competitive Republican primary for a major statewide office in two decades. But many are still waiting for something — anything — to distinguish one candidate from another.

It wasn’t always this way. Before this election cycle, the decision was much easier for Republicans. Activists treated the Republican Party’s endorsement like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: In the name of party unity — and as a way to get a head start on the campaign against Democrats, who often had competitive summer primary elections — endorsed candidates rarely faced serious primary challenges. 

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But the last two election cycles produced GOP-endorsed candidates who went on to underperform expectations in the general election, which has caused many to question whether the process can produce candidates that can win across the state. Honour, an Orono businessman and political outsider, was the first candidate to jump in the governor’s race this cycle and immediately said he would run in a primary, regardless of who the party endorsed at its May convention. He was followed by former House Speaker Zellers and former House Minority Leader Seifert. Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner, is the only candidate still in the race who bet his candidacy on the endorsement.

While diminished over the last several years, the value of the endorsement isn’t totally lost in this election. As Kolb notes — “It will get you to the 10 yard line of the 100 yard dash,”  — but the fate of the process moving forward could hinge on how Johnson performs this cycle.

“If Johnson doesn’t win the primary, that’s a serious hit to the endorsement process, and if he wins the primary and doesn’t win the general, I think that’s the last straw on the endorsement,” former Republican Party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb, who is neutral in the race, said. “If Johnson loses then Republicans are going to have to take a hard look at the endorsement process, and say, is this the best way to pick the best candidate for the general election?” 

Low turnout could favor Johnson

Minnesota Republicans began putting emphasis on the endorsement process after the 1994 election, when state Rep. Allen Quist famously won the GOP endorsement for governor over incumbent Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. Carlson moved on to the primary without the backing of activists — the first Republican governor in state history to do so — and handily defeated Quist.

The contest fractured the state party. Many wanted to see Carlson win, but some activists accused Republican Party Chairman Chris Georgacas of not doing enough to support Quist. When TCF Bank Chairman Bill Cooper took over the reins as chairman in 1997, he made a pledge to always back the party’s endorsed candidate in the name of unity. In the years that followed, the endorsee almost always went into the general election without facing a serious primary challenge.

In 2010, however, GOP-endorsee Tom Emmer lost to Dayton — despite it being a wave year for conservatives. Two years later, Libertarians took over the state convention and endorsed newcomer Kurt Bills to take on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Bills fared so poorly in the general election that the race was called within the first five minutes of polls closing.

As a result, rank-and-file activists and candidates began questioning whether the process, which leaves the vetting of statewide candidates in the hands of less than 2,000 people, is the right way to pick a nominee. 

This year, primaries aren’t just for the Democrats, but the first Republican gubernatorial primary in more than two decades isn’t expected to be a big show. Projections for turnout are already low — the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office anticipates somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 votes. Just four years ago, Democrats drew out nearly 450,000 to the polls in a three-way gubernatorial primary that crowned Dayton the nominee.

With low turnout, many anticipate the likely Republican primary voter will have a lot of crossover with the typical party activist, who have long observed the tradition of backing the endorsed candidate.   

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People will defer to, all things else being equal, the fact that their neighbors have vetted the candidates and they like one more than the rest. That can be a significant tiebreaker in what can be a close race,” former Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said. “You can count on the activists voting and that will tip the scale in the endorsed candidate’s favor.”

For Brodkorb, the party’s endorsement is still perceived as a valuable filter for many Republican primary voters. “Over the last couple of decades, Republicans have been kind of hard wired to support the endorsement process,” he said.

Republican Party helps — where it can

As the endorsed candidate, Johnson will have the benefit of an infrastructure that’s hard for other campaigns to replicate, including 16 field offices around the state filled with volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls on his behalf.  

“In some ways, the merits of the Republican endorsement have been burnished just with what we’ve done in the last three to six months,” state GOP Chairman Keith Downey said. “You’d have to go back to [former U.S. Sen. Norm] Coleman to find an election when the party has done more.”

But the party’s backing still isn’t what it used to be. The 2010 gubernatorial election between Dayton and Emmer led to a brief and expensive recount for the party. Dayton came out on top in the end, and the party came out more than $2 million in debt from the entire cycle. It’s been a slow crawl back to stability — donors have only recently started flocking back to the party.

Johnson himself isn’t an adept fundraiser. While he experienced a surge of donations after he won the endorsement, he still lags all but one of the four candidates with less than $123,000 in the bank as of the pre-primary campaign finance reporting period. 

Honour, on the other hand, has the ability to self-finance in the race, loaning himself most of the nearly $1.8 million he has raised this cycle.

GOP operative Ben Golnik, who is not supporting anyone in the race, agrees that Johnson has an edge because of the endorsement, but he’s also noticed a surge in activity from Honour, both in garnering headlines and in a surge of paid media.

“A lot of people in this race are still undecided,” Golnik said. “How many votes can advertising buy him at the last minute? His name ID has been pretty low, but over the last week we’ve seen a lot from him. He’s been the most visible.” 

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General election forecasting

In the end, Kolb is less worried about who he votes for on Tuesday and more concerned about Republicans’ ability to get their base excited about the general election. The midterm election favors Republicans, but enthusiasm has been low on both sides. Some GOP activists are worried Republicans won’t get the turnout they need to knock off an incumbent like Dayton.

“If you look at 2010, the DFL saw a huge jump when they had a competitive primary. They almost doubled the primary turnout. We are going to get the same number as we did in 2010, if not lower. There’s no intensity,” he said. “That in and an of itself is more of a signal of a problem — that we have four people out there trying to get people excited about coming to vote in a primary and they can’t.”

But Downey — despite doing all he can to defend the party’s endorsement — is hopeful the exercise of going through a primary election will leave a prevailing candidate that’s message-tested with many voters across the state.

“I think lot of people looked at a competitive primary as this major threat and a definite distraction and downside for Republicans,” Downey said. “But whoever wins on Tuesday, they will have established a track record of success. They will have spent months contrasting their approach to that of the Democrats, and we will have, in some ways, put ourselves in an even stronger position.”