Outsiders, swamp drainers: How GOP candidates are positioning themselves for the governor’s race

MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Despite being in state politics for nearly a decade, Keith Downey’s running for governor of Minnesota in 2018 with a different message: He’s an outsider who will shake up state government.

Keith Downey has been involved in Minnesota politics for nearly a decade, first as a state House representative and most recently as a two-term chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.

But he’s running for governor of Minnesota in 2018 with a different message: He’s an outsider who will shake up state government. In campaign materials, Downey talks about his time as a business and information systems consultant who saw a “corrupt and broken” system in St. Paul. He ran for the House and unseated a Republican incumbent, coming in as a “government reformer.” At the debt-straddled state party, Downey said he came in to turn things around.

“I ran for the House against an 18-year incumbent Republican. I was the outsider that time, and I saw him as part of the problem and not the solution, “Downey said. “I proposed a lot of bold ideas.”

Downey’s pitch to voters and activists is not surprising in the growing Republican field vying to be Minnesota’s next chief executive. In the 2016 election, multibillionaire real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump danced around more established Republican candidates to secure the party’s nomination. He went on to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state who was easy to pin with the political insider status. He did that with a message of challenging the order of things in Washington, D.C., and his rally cry to “drain the swamp.”

“That’s what people saw in Donald Trump, was someone who had the will and abilities to make those changes,” Downey said. “Those appetites are still out there.”

Trump’s strategy seen as a possible path to statewide office

Trump’s strategy worked well in Minnesota, too, where Clinton beat him by less than 2 percentage points.That’s significant in a state that’s swung heavily for Democratic presidential candidates since 1972. Clinton won Minnesota with nine of the larger, more populated of Minnesota’s 87 counties, while Trump captured turf in the typically DFL-friendly Iron Range.

For Republicans, it’s shown a possible path to winning a statewide office in an open race, something they haven’t managed to do in Minnesota since 2002. His success has inspired several Republican candidates to file for the governor’s race, while others are channeling Trump with a more populist campaign message, promising to break up the establishment in St. Paul.

Gregg Peppin
Gregg Peppin

“The Republican base is no longer just the country club, Chamber of Commerce-type of voters, it’s the blue-collar, rural, working-class voters that are being drawn in more and connecting more with the Republican message,” Gregg Peppin, a longtime Republican political operative, said. “I think it reflects Minnesota being more in play in statewide races. There’s this realization, and we’re probably a little bit later to this realization than some other states.” 

Trump is by no means the first outsider to break into politics. His successful candidacy follows plenty of other outsiders in political history. In the 1992 election, American business magnate Ross Perot’s independent candidacy for president earned him 19 million votes, or nearly 18 percent of the vote. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, the career soldier had never held any other elected office. There was no benchmark yet, but even America’s first president, George Washington, an Army general, would be considered an outsider by today’s standards.

Minnesota’s most prominent outsider

In Minnesota, former pro wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura is the most prominent outsider candidate, who ran in the 1998 governor’s race as a Reform Party candidate against two established political names: The former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, and DFLer Skip Humphrey, the son of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Like Trump, few thought Ventura stood a chance, even as he began to dominate media coverage with his message of pushing back on special interests. He won by drawing first-time voters to the polls, particularly younger white men.

Gov. Jesse Ventura
REUTERSGov. Jesse Ventura

“There have always been people trying to play the outsider card in politics, but with populist candidates, it’s really about how they come across,” Peppin said. “It’s one thing to talk populism and taking the government back to the people, but if it doesn’t come off as credible it falls on deaf ears.”

Former Republican House representative and current Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is making his second run for governor, after losing to Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014, and he doesn’t call himself an outsider.

“I think I could try and call myself an outsider and try and pull that off, but I don’t think that’s honest,” he said. He’s sees value in his experience in politics combined with his years running a small business, Midwest Employment Resources, which provides human resources training and workplace investigations.

“I think people generally appreciate some experience in government as long as you can show you’ve done something good with that and you can combine it with life in the real world,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s populist message

But he is running on a populist message not unlike Trump’s to bring government back to the people. In a not-so-subtle video announcing his campaign, Johnson walks into a party of people sipping champagne and eating hors d’oeuvres and stops a record playing jazz music. He describes St. Paul as “Minnesota’s own swamp of cronyism and political favors” and promises to — literally — break up the party.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Commissioner Jeff Johnson

“The attitude in government right now is to control and direct people as opposed to serve people,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s the DFL or Republicans, I think that’s a problem and I think people want that to change. That’s something Donald Trump certainly spoke to.”

The Republican field for governor in Minnesota also includes seven-term state Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman, perennial candidate Ole Savior, and activists Jeffrey Ryan Wharton, Phillip Parrish and Christopher William Chamberlin. Chamberlin, of St. Cloud, said he was invited to Trump’s rally at the Sun Country Airlines cargo hangar in Minneapolis last year, where he met the now-president.

“He looked right at me and said, ‘It is time for new blood here in Minnesota and it’s your responsibility to drain the swamp,” Chamberlin wrote on his website. “That is exactly what I intend to do.”

Another Trump in the wings?

But some Republicans are still waiting for a major high-profile outsider to jump into the governor’s race, in particular someone from the business world with a similar message and profile to Trump. Republicans have tried to recruit My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who recently traveled to the White House to meet Trump.

“I think we’ll definitely have more candidates jump into the race,” said Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, herself a businesswoman and newcomer to the party who surprised everyone earlier this year when she beat several more established candidates for the chair job. “When we look at Republican candidates who are running for statewide races, what is very positive and interesting is a lot of them do come from very different backgrounds and have very different perspectives.”

Mike Lindell
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Mike Lindell

But by the time the 2018 election comes around, some candidates might be actively trying to avoid a Trump-like message, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. Just seven months on the job, Trump’s administration has been plagued with leaks, administrative shake ups and bad headlines related to the ongoing Russian election interference investigation. The latest Rasmussen Reports poll showed only 38 percent of likely voters approve of Trump’s job performance, lower than even President Barack Obama’s lowest approval rating during his eight years in office.

“I think 2018 is almost impossible to predict right now, especially with all of the problems with both Trump and the Democratic Party,” he said. “The key is finding a message that can really capture those disaffected voters on both sides. They are trying to capture some of the lightning in a bottle that Trump did in the state.” 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by John Webster on 08/03/2017 - 09:42 am.


    Republicans often say that we would have better government if more people with private sector experience held elected offices. I agree that such experience can provide valuable insight into the real world outside of government. But……businesspeople still need to have relevant knowledge about public policy issues. President Trump shows every day the weaknesses he brought into office on January 20, 2017. He hinted for many years that he would run for President, but he never took the time to become well-informed about most issues, and worse, he still sees no need to become well-informed. A big reason why former Generals like Washington and Eisenhower were successful Presidents is that their senior military experience gave them insight into the political world. Trump has never tried to gain analogous experience. He would never hire a CEO for his businesses who is so ill-informed about the specific job as he is about the Presidency.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/03/2017 - 09:50 am.

    Hard to predict

    Steven Schier is probably close to the mark in saying, “I think 2018 is almost impossible to predict right now, especially with all of the problems with both Trump and the Democratic Party.” Nationally, at least, Democrats have yet to devise a coherent message that resonates with voters, and the same syndrome seems to have affected the DFL in Minnesota, as well. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is an unmitigated disaster, almost from day one, whether we’re considering domestic policy, foreign policy, environmental policy, fiscal policy, etc., etc. Candidates who emphasize “draining the swamp” may well find themselves trying desperately to escape any association with that metaphor and/or the Trump administration by the time November, 2018 rolls around.

    I understand I’m preaching to the choir for the most part here on MinnPost, but so far, I see little that’s appealing in any of the GOP candidates. Jennifer Carnahan will, I think, find it increasingly difficult to mesh “different” and “interesting” candidates with the same Republican message—government bad, taxes bad, “freedom” (if you’re affluent, allegedly Christian, racist, male, white) good—the party has been fixated on for the past couple of generations.

    Mr. Downey may be a good guy, but his characterization of himself as an “outsider” is laughable, and Mr. Chamberlain’s acceptance of a Trump campaign slogan at face value, just because it was delivered in person, as if Mr. Trump actually knew or cared who he might be, reveals a naivete that doesn’t inspire confidence. Mr. Johnson’s message is, as that same message often is, sophistry. I note that he provides no specifics to support his claim that state government is somehow not serving the interests of the public. If state government is not serving his own personal interests, it doesn’t mean the same government is failing to serve the broader public interest. On the other hand, at least Johnson is straightforward in suggesting that it wouldn’t be honest for him to try to portray himself as an “outsider.”

    Trump’s “strategy,” such as it was, essentially repeated the formula that demagogues have used for centuries, and revolved around bigoted rhetoric in more forms than I’ve ever seen outside of a barroom, while promising a “return” to economic prosperity for disaffected white citizens who’ve been left behind, or at least feel they’ve been left behind, by the digital upheaval of the economy. Even with the help of sycophants in Congress, he shows no signs of being able to deliver on the few positive aspects of his campaign, perhaps because he lacks the discipline to effectively do political work.

    Minnesota Republicans who try to emulate Donald Trump may well be digging their own political graves. There’s plenty of recent evidence (i.e., since I arrived here in 2009) that much of the boilerplate ALEC/Heritage Foundation/Republican agenda in Minnesota simply doesn’t play well in the real world outside the Republican caucus room.

  3. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 08/03/2017 - 09:51 am.

    The Elephant in the Room

    was referenced in a comment in the Doug Grow article. Lots of talk from the Republicans about populism, draining the swamp, connecting with the disaffected, etc; but the statement that was telling was one about the coddling of black lives matter by the DFL. Part of the Republican strategy is an unabashed appeal to a strain of racism that is prevalent among some Minnesotans. Trump has doubled down on it with his speech to the police and his new immigration policy announced yesterday defended by White House Racist in Residence, Steve Miller. The state Republicans are exploiting that also with the pitting of rural Minnesota versus urban Minnesota. Just the refusal to capitalize “black lives matter” is very telling, though I’m sure the writer would sanctimoniously deny that he had a shred of racism in his body.

    Not sure how the DFL counters the strategy since appeals like that allow the Republicans to accomplish their primary goals time after time: deregulation of laws that protect us, cutting taxes that primarily benefits the rich, weakening unions that fight for decent wages and benefits, privatization of education, and whatever other goals the conservative think tanks come up with.

  4. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 08/03/2017 - 09:54 am.

    Oh my goodness…no

    I remember our last repub gov…Pawlenty…who cut spending for education, cities, counties while we watched property taxes in some areas skyrocket, leaving behind an almost record deficit and slow growth.
    If you check around the country, the vast majority of worst K-12 educational systems and poverty…well…they’re located in repub states along with slow growth.
    And…we have the same issues on the federal level…massive deficits and slow growth…while their wealthy benefactors…the 1%…gain tremendously…while we do not.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/03/2017 - 09:58 am.

    Are These Generals

    Preparing for the last war?

  6. Submitted by David Broden on 08/03/2017 - 10:27 am.

    Mn Needs a Statesman Leader -Innovator- Listener

    Looking to 2018 Governor candidates is a challenge to find anyone who is viewed as a Statesman leader, innovator and listener. With a bit of reflection MN has had governors from both parties who match this description. The candidates in the list up to now are focused on moving MN away from innovation in government that reflects a vision for the state and rather draws MN back to the past. Society and the world is changing rapidly around all of us and we need to have a vision which all citizens can help shape and in which all have opportunity. Draining the swamp or tearing down the past built by both parties is not a responsible approach- evolving a vision which enables MN and its ctiizens across all of MN and of all diverse demographics to have quality of life and opportunity is equired and can be done. MN must have a vision of economic strength, education, health care, strong infrastructure, environmental integrity and social justice progress. Candidates who campaign on minimizing government are not the objective. I have been a GOP activist and leader for my entire life, grew up in rural Mn ( Swift County), ran a small business successfully, and had a successful high tech career now as a Consulting firm. The era of progressive innovative and thoughtful GOP candidates remains available and when one or more steps forward MN voters will recognize the benefits and select that person over those who seek to find fault in all MN has and does stand for in effective and visionary government.The GOP progressive legacy is strong and will appear as we move into 2018 and beyond.

    Dave Broden

  7. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 08/03/2017 - 11:06 am.

    Can a “mainstream” candidate replicate Trump’s success

    One of the reasons Trump won last November was because he was not a traditional politician and was able to appeal to the segment of voters that had been alienated by the type of candidates the two major parties usually selected.

    Can a traditional politician be elected by adopting Trump’s style and message? I am not sure that will work since the electorate that elected Trump rejected traditional politicians and I doubt that changing the window dressing will convince anyone that an individual running for Governor is nothing more than business as usual, but with a combative and populist message. However, an outsider such as Mike Lindell might appeal to Trump voters, but he lacks the name recognition and “star” quality of Trump, and that will hurt him if he decides to enter the race.

  8. Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/03/2017 - 11:10 am.

    Donald Trump is MN Republican’s new role model?

    Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower are three Republicans the MN GOP could be looking at for winning ideas and inspiration but they’re working hard as they can to follow Donald Trump’s lead?

    Jennifer Rubin is a conservative who writes the “Right Turn” column for the Washington Post (“offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective,” her brief profile says).

    The headline of a column she wrote last week caught my eye.

    “Does the GOP deserve to survive?”


    I’d recommend reading the entire column to anyone interested in “perspectives worth considering,” but here are a few excerpts:

    “Since President Trump won the Republican presidential nomination a question hangs over the right: Should the GOP survive or is it morally corrupted and politically deformed to such an extent that those of good conscience on the center-right must start anew? . . .

    “They elevated a very dangerous man who has done and continues to do great damage to our country . . .

    “Given the enormity of the GOP’s malfeasance, a new party may in fact be required . . .

    ” . . . the Trump problem is of an entirely different magnitude than, say, Watergate, and has resulted in much more serious, permanent damage to our democracy . . .

    “And yes, most of the Republicans currently in the House and Senate need to go. They’ve put party over country, not lived up to their oaths of office and contributed to the polarization of our politics and erosion of our democratic norms. A clean, dramatic break is mandatory.”

    And remember: Those are the words of a person who considers themselves a conservative.

    I couldn’t help but think of that column as I read this one. Not the question of whether or not the Minnesota GOP “deserves to survive,” but the idea that MN Republicans are thinking the emulation of our new president is a good idea.

    If that’s the case it tells me we are in for a Republican campaign that will consist of nothing but dishonest and misleading pronouncements about what’s wrong with everyone and everything but them . . . obnoxious, often obscene insults and accusations . . . and an endless fog of diversion from the real and important issues and questions many Minnesotans want to hear debated and answered.

    For just one example, I could care less whether Keith Downey (or any other politician) thinks of themselves as an “outsider,” or whether or not he or she thinks everyone else is an “insider member of the establishment swamp” that only they can drain, etc..

    Instead, I’d like to know what the Republican (and Democratic) candidates for Governor think about the cost of health care and what actions he or she would take to deal with it.

    I’d like to know why they think health care in Manitoba, Canada (just a few hundred north of St. Paul) costs Manitobans an average of $4,500 per year while lower quality health care is costing Minnesotans an average of $9,000 to $10,000 per year.

    I’m only one MN voter, but as far as I’m concerned, Republicans and Democrats and anyone else running for Governor could just skip all the standard negative campaigning and spend the entire election season talking about that issue alone . . . There are other important things they should address instead of wasting everyone’s time explaining what’s wrong with everyone and everything else, but focusing on helping Minnesotans reduce the cost and increase the quality of their health care would be a good (not to mention refreshing) start.

    Oh, by the way . . . As a further indication of how serious and concerned the MN GOP is about NOT putting “party over country,” that prime, “true outsider,” mega-splash candidate they MAY be waiting for (“Another Trump in the wings?”), Mike Lindell, there was this article about his company (and brief hint at what HIS health care plans might be) on the StarTribune web site last November:

    “MyPillow gets a rude awakening with $1 million suit settlement

    “MyPillow Inc., the Chaska-based pillow manufacturer, agreed to pay about $1 million in civil penalties to settle a deceptive ad case brought by prosecutors in nine California counties . . . The company can no longer say that its products are able to cure diseases.”


    Keith Downey + Donald Trump + Mike Lindell = MN GOP?

    Interesting and revealing reflection of what Republicans think Minnesotans need and want in a Governor.

  9. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 08/03/2017 - 01:42 pm.

    Trump under ran Bush Sr and Jr

    Reagan and Romney in share of the vote. If anything the MNGOP should try and emulate them. Or even Rubio

  10. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 08/03/2017 - 08:45 pm.

    The outsider image

    that Trump is performing does not give credence to future outsider candidates anyplace. People have been sucked in on this trip and will be much more cautious next time around before jumping on an unknown snake oil band wagon of either party….and it does not matter whether they are urban or rural voters.

  11. Submitted by Bob Anderson on 08/03/2017 - 10:40 pm.

    The new Democratic Party

    The problem the Democrats are going to face is not so much what Republican they face but their own parties shortfalls. The Democratic Party of today is not even a shadow of the party many of us grew up with. The lack of leadership and acceptance of Antifa, Black lives matter and refusal to condem the mayhem these protest groups have caused, their silence is consent. We have two Democratic Senators that have become resist and obstructionists. The state came close to going red with President Trump and the governor and senate race haven’t had this good a chance to go red in a long time.

  12. Submitted by Bob Anderson on 08/03/2017 - 10:46 pm.

    The new Democratic Party

    The problem the Democrats are going to face is not so much what Republican they face but their own parties shortfalls. The Democratic Party of today is not even a shadow of the party many of us grew up with. The lack of leadership and acceptance of Antifa, Black lives matter and refusal to condem the mayhem these protest groups have caused, their silence is consent. We have two Democratic Senators that have become resist and obstructionists. The state came close to going red with President Trump and the governor and senate race haven’t had this good a chance to go red in a long time.

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 08/04/2017 - 01:10 pm.


      Rural MN exists only because the metro provides them LGA funds. End that charade. But the even greater stupidity is that rural people think that they benefit from the republicans. Republicans could care a less about rural mn unless they are rich farmers or businessman. In addition, rural people collect more benefits than they pay in taxes.

  13. Submitted by joe smith on 08/06/2017 - 07:33 am.

    Easy for GOP to message to voters,

    smaller Govt, tax cuts, less regulations, follow rule of law, respect the working class, increase wages (not the bogus 15$ an hour scam), diversify education (trades, apprenticeship) and individual accountably. The Dems have to square backing BLM, dog talking police and the job they do with the rule of law. Have to explain 8 years of middle class wages going down, part time work going up and more folks on welfare than ever under Obama.

    I just hope the GOP gets people running that call it like it is, no matter how much the media beats them up for it. Explain that expanding Medicaid to 4x the poverty rate is unaffordable. Explain that individuals who actually pay for their healthcare under Obamacare can’t afford a policy and the Govt subsidizing millions of policies where the tax payer covers $800 of an $850 monthly with a $8,500 deductible (which folks can’t pay, again falling on to tax payers) is poor health insurance and unaffordable for America.

    My biggest concern with GOP is they become the Dem Lite party. Giving away tax payer money to buy votes has infected both parties. Honestly talking about what role Govt has in Americans lives and how much power we are willing to give elected officials is going to determine who wins elections.

Leave a Reply