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The nice guy’s guide to becoming the Republican nominee for governor

With little name recognition and even less money, Jeff Johnson fended off four opponents to become the GOP’s choice to take on Mark Dayton this fall. So how, exactly, did he do it?

Jeff Johnson securing the Republican endorsement during the party's May convention.
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday

Unlike many a modern candidate running for bigtime public office, Republican gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson didn’t come from a corporate boardroom. Or from another high-profile political perch. He didn’t boast personal wealth to back his bid, or even have a particularly compelling personal narrative. In fact, the mild-mannered Republican Hennepin County Commissioner readily admits he’s a pretty typical suburban dad from Plymouth: a “nice guy.”

But after securing the party’s endorsement in May, Johnson managed to dispatch — with relative ease —  a handful of better-known and better-funded Republican in a four-way primary, winning the right to take on incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton this fall. 

He did so by a series of strategic moves that hinged, for better or worse, on the continuing power of the Republican Party of Minnesota. The strategy was not without risk: The party’s backing used to be a prerequisite to being considered legitimate statewide candidate, but the process has more recently come into question after the party-backed candidates in the last two election cycles went on to perform poorly against their DFL opponents. Johnson was one of the few willing to abide by the endorsement process from day one. 

“The party brand was very tenuous a year ago,” Johnson campaign spokesman Gregg Peppin said. “We didn’t know where it was going to be a year down the road. Others felt its as important that we have that discussion — would the party be a detriment or an advantage? Jeff was very consistent on that from the get go, in spite of repeated attempts from people to say maybe we should rethink this. His rationale was this that the Republicans are going to be with the party regardless.”

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In the end, Johnson’s decision paid off, but his success took more than simply promising to abide by the endorsement. Indeed, the process started several years before, when he began collecting chits, padding his support with activists, and rolling up his sleeves — all during a period when the party faced millions in debt and paralyzing factionalism.  ”He’s just wired different,” Peppin said. “He has a calm methodical way he goes about his business.” 

Here’s how a “nice guy” managed to become the guy in the Republican Party of Minnesota:

Step 1: Build a base

After the contentious 2010 election, Johnson saw an opportunity to get more involved with the party: Republican activists were preparing to vote for two new representatives to the Republican National Committee. Tom Emmer, who was fresh off a loss to Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor’s race, was the presumptive favorite in the contest, largely because of his name recognition. Johnson had other ideas, and spent months calling activists on the state GOP’s central committee to try and convince them why he would be better for the job. When the party finally voted on the position, Johnson — to the surprise of many — easily beat Emmer. 

But Johnson really stepped into the spotlight later that year, when then-Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton resigned amid rumors that the party had hundreds of thousands of dollars — maybe millions — in unpaid bills from the contentious 2010 election. The controversy generated a spate of bad headlines for the party, and GOP activists soon became restless seeking answers.

In response, Johnson pushed for an internal audit of the party’s finances, and pledged to reveal publicly whatever was found. Just before the start of the 2012 election year, Johnson and other party officials revealed that the state GOP was more than $1.3 million in debt, a number that would ultimately swell to more than $2 million after adding bills from a short but expensive gubernatorial recount.  ”There’s some ugly stuff in here,” Johnson said at the time. ”The people in the Republican Party need to know where we stand, warts and all.”

“He was one of the folks that was willing to roll up his sleeves and not just run away from the party, but help repair the party and bring it back,” said Third Congressional District Chairman Rick Weible, who worked with Johnson to dig through the books. 

Step 2: Appeal to all factions

At the 2012 Republican Party’s convention, tensions swelled between a new party faction, supporters of Congressman Ron Paul, and long-time members of the party, over whom to endorse to take on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The Paulites wanted the Libertarian one-term state legislator Kurt Bills. The establishment wanted veteran Pete Hegseth.

At the convention, Johnson took the dais to address the rising tensions, delivering a memorable, if simple, message: Get over it.  “I’m a strong believer [that] in politics there’s no such thing as standing still,” Johnson told the longtime activists, who were resentful of the newcomers. “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. If we don’t grow, we die as a party.” 

But he also made sure to address the new faction of Paul/Bills supporters. “You know, there’s a lot of anger,” Johnson said. “Some of the anger is from people who have been sitting in your seats for 20 or 30 years doing hard work and aren’t here this year because you’re here instead.” 

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The tough love approach earned respect for Johnson from both factions, which became clear when he launched his bid for governor. In a nonbinding straw poll of roughly 400 GOP activists conducted in the fall of 2013, Johnson was the most popular of four gubernatorial candidates competing for the party’s nod.

“He had a way of building bridges with different individuals and between different groups within the party,” said political science professor David Sturrock, who served as the Republican Party treasurer when Johnson worked with the party. “That was a very good foundation, as it turns out, for running for statewide office. He had no natural base of opposition. He was broadly acceptable from just about any stripe of Republican.” 

Step 3: Go all-in on the convention

Johnson still had to win the party’s official endorsement at the party’s May 2014 convention, and then move on to the GOP’s first competitive primary election in more than two decades. 

Two candidates — former Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers and Orono businessman Scott Honour — had already announced that they were not abiding by the endorsement; they’d be moving on to the primary regardless. All of which meant the contest at the convention was between Johnson, state Sen. Dave Thompson and former House minority leader Marty Seifert.

With few major differences on policy issues between the candidates in the race, the willingness to abide by the endorsement became the focus of the convention. Johnson went all in. He produced a slick video that played ahead of his convention speech and added lavish touches, like free oysters for delegates and personalized room keys and lanyards. 

“He made the endorsement process the most important thing in this race. In the days and weeks leading up to the convention, the issue of abiding literally trumped everything else,” Republican blogger and former deputy party chairman Michael Brodkorb said. “He pulled out every conceivable way to court the delegates, from posters to buttons to serving oysters on a half shell.”

Again, the move paid off. Johnson beat out his opponents after four rounds of balloting, a fairly quick victory compared to the marathon endorsement process that went on the night before for the U.S. Senate race.  

Step 4: Compete in a low-turnout primary

In theory, the August primary could have posed a big challenge for Johnson. It would involve far more than the 2,000 or so Republican Party delegates who voted for him in the endorsing contest, and he had little funding behind his campaign to build name recognition and get his message on the air, especially compared to candidates like Honour, who raised himself nearly $2 million for the campaign (much of it his own money).

But Johnson’s assumption that the endorsement would still hold power with Republican primary voters proved correct. Only about 10 percent of eligible Minnesotans showed up to the polls, and with the help of the party’s voter lists and grassroots volunteers, Johnson managed to trump his four challengers in both the metro and rural areas.

Next step: Appeal to everyone

Johnson must now pivot from his small world of party activists and primary voters — who tend to be far more committed and far more conservative than the average voter — to the wider world, and his challenges are considerable. 

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There’s the money, for one. After his spendy endorsement fight, Johnson had just $122,000 in campaign funds on hand ahead of the primary election. (Dayton, who’s not exactly know as an enthusiastic fundraiser, had nearly $850,000.) Some have criticized his spending choices, which have left him little now to spend on television advertisements at a time when polls have consistently shown the incumbent Democratic governor with a sizeable lead.

There is also the limits of the nice-guy factor. Johnson couldn’t be more different than Emmer, Dayton’s 2010 opponent and a Tea Party conservative with a fiery presence on the stump. Many pundits are still not sure how the race will play out compared to past statewide elections, with essentially two “nice guy” candidates going head-to-head for the state’s top executive office.

“I don’t believe you are going to nice your way into the governor’s office,” Brodkorb said. “These elections are about contrast.”

But others say Johnson’s amiable ways have worked so far. Why change now? Weible points to seemingly unbeatable Minnesota lawmakers like DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, who rarely rock the boat and don’t run divisive campaigns.

“They say the nice person finishes last? Not in Minnesota,” Weible said. “Minnesotans like those calm, deliberative people to represent them.”