Minnesota primary will test GOP’s endorsement value
ST. PAUL -- In addition to deciding which candidate will challenge Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on Nov. 4, Minnesota Republican voters will pass judgment in Tuesday’s primary election on the value of the party’s endorsement.
If GOP-endorsed Jeff Johnson wins, the party’s stock will rise. But if he loses, the value of the party’s backing will continue to erode.
“I think it boils down to this question: Is the Republican Party back?” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
The party has gone through a rough patch in recent years. Its endorsed candidates have lost in two consecutive statewide elections, even in 2010, which was a good year for Republicans. The state party also narrowly averted bankruptcy and eviction from its headquarters two years ago.
But under the leadership of state GOP Chairman Keith Downey, who was elected last year, the party is retiring its debt, beefing up its campaign operations and experiencing what its leaders say is a surge of grass-roots energy and enthusiasm.
“If Jeff Johnson wins, it will be a powerful signal that the Republican Party is back on its feet,” Jacobs said.
Johnson is in a hotly contested race with three strong GOP challengers: businessman Scott Honour, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
The Republican contest for governor is the marquee event in Tuesday’s primary election. In the party’s three-way U.S. Senate race, GOP-endorsed businessman Mike McFadden is favored to win.
In the only competitive statewide battle in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary, former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza is challenging two-term State Auditor Rebecca Otto, the DFL endorsee.
Honour, Seifert and Zellers decided to run against the candidate endorsed by the GOP state convention in part because they viewed its endorsement as damaged goods. Many donors and other establishment Republicans believe the endorsing process had been hijacked by the party’s tea party and libertarian-leaning factions, and the challengers didn’t think the party would be able to provide much money or organizational help to the endorsed candidate.
Downey acknowledged that might have been the case 18 months ago. But since then, he said, the state party has been restructured; it has put most of its financial problems behind it — it raised a monthly record $719,000 in June — and it came out of its state convention at the end of May “more energized, unified and stronger than we have been in a long time.”
Traditionally, the big advantage a candidate received with the Republican endorsement was its list of likely primary election voters.
But the Honour and Zellers campaigns have said they have been able to match the party’s list by purchasing sophisticated voter-identification systems.
“Lists have become a bit of a commodity,” Downey conceded. “But it’s not just who’s got the lists; it’s what you do with them. … No other statewide candidates have 18 field offices working to support them and hundreds of volunteers making tens of thousands of phone calls and visiting thousands of doors for them.”
The party’s 18 “victory centers” have met or exceeded all their goals for door knocking and making more than 200,000 phone calls, Republican National Committeeman Chris Tiedeman said.
“Chairman Downey has really focused on the nuts and bolts of what a party in this environment should do,” he said.
But a party can only do so much. The candidate is the key to winning over and turning out voters.
So far, many observers say, Johnson may be a step ahead, but he hasn’t clearly broken away from the rest of the pack in the GOP primary.
A contested primary can focus public attention on candidates. That happened in 2010 when Dayton, Entenza and DFL-endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher waged a high-profile battle in their party’s gubernatorial primary. Dayton’s win that summer gave him a big boost in the fall.
“A contested primary is a good thing if you own the spotlight and make it pay off for you,” state DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. “But I don’t think any of the candidates on their side have done that.”
For one thing, they haven’t raised and spent nearly as much money on their campaigns as the DFLers did four years ago — less than $2 million this year by the four Republican contenders, compared to nearly $9 million by three DFL candidates by this time in 2010.
The outcome Tuesday will depend on which candidate can get his supporters out to the polls.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s chief election administrator, predicted a turnout in the “10 to 15 percent range, which is average.”
Since 2000, Minnesota primary election turnouts have ranged from 8 percent to 17 percent.
But DFL Chairman Martin expects only about 190,000 voters to cast ballots, or just over 6 percent of the state’s 3.1 million registered voters.
“In low-turnout primaries, the people who show up are hard-core partisans,” he said. “In that scenario, party endorsement carries a lot of weight.”
The University of Minnesota’s Jacobs predicted that fewer than 9 percent of registered voters will vote. A low Republican turnout “could be a signal of voter disinterest in the candidates,” he said.
The GOP’s Tiedeman agreed the turnout would be low, “but that’s because it’s August, and everybody’s sitting at the lake.”
Honour is a first-time candidate who is running as an “outsider, not another career politician.” If he wins, Jacobs said, it will send a strong message that voters are looking for a new face.
If Seifert or Zellers wins, he said, “it would be, in different ways, a vindication of very sour defeats in the past.”
Seifert narrowly lost the Republican endorsement for governor in 2010.
Zellers was the architect of the GOP campaign that won control of the state House four years ago, only to lose the majority two years later as speaker.
While DFLers don’t have many hot primary contests, the race for auditor is surprisingly spirited. Entenza jumped into the fight on the last day for filing, and he had invested more than $250,000 of his own money in a high-profile campaign by late July, almost double the amount Otto raised.
As a result, the DFL Party has “spent a lot more time and money than we ever imagined” defending Otto, Martin said. It has mailed about 200,000 sample ballots and other campaign literature, broadcast radio spots and made “hundreds of thousands of phone calls” to likely DFL primary voters, he said.
It’s a case of Entenza versus the establishment.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.