MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Republican Jeff Johnson held a steady lead Tuesday as votes were counted in the Republican primary to determine Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-election opponent.
The Hennepin County commissioner, who had the endorsement of the state GOP convention, was ahead as one-third of the vote was tabulated. His closest competitor was former House Speaker Kurt Zellers followed by businessman Scott Honour and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.
The winner has 12 weeks to take on Dayton, who cruised to the Democratic nomination for a second term bid.
The GOP party endorsement that Johnson secured at a spring state convention gave him access to the GOP voter list and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Accountant Leslie Smith cast her ballot in Edina for Johnson, whom she saw as the most able to stitch together a winning coalition in November.
“You want to go with someone who is electable, whether they’re sometimes your first choice or not. Which is unfortunate, but that’s how politics works,” Smith said.
While waiting for his fall opponent, Dayton spent his time relentlessly promoting the state’s economic turnaround during his first term. He faced little trouble in his primary campaign.
Retired teacher Janice Smith, who voted a Democratic ballot in Eagan, said she was happy with Minnesota’s current leadership and hoped to keep the status quo. “The Democrats did what they promised,” she said. “They did good for education and jobs. I just think they did one heckuva good job.”
But Republicans see vulnerability in Dayton’s support of a health insurance marketplace that struggled to get off the ground. They’ve also attacked changes in law he supported that benefited labor unions, and have tied him to a new Senate office building they portrayed as lavish.
It was the GOP’s first competitive primary for governor in two decades, but the campaign was mild. No candidate aired TV attack ads against the others.
“Our race has been run very gentlemanly,” said Seifert, a former House minority leader. “I’m glad we didn’t have ridiculously sharp elbows thrown.”
Johnson attracted the most criticism from the others late in the race, a nominal signal that he was the candidate to catch. He wasn’t the best financed, but had the ground strength of the GOP mobilizing volunteers and call centers for him.
Johnson, 47, serves on the board for Minnesota’s most populous county. The suburban lawyer spent six years in the state House before giving up his seat to run for attorney general in 2006, a race he lost. He remained active in party politics, cultivating connections he leaned on when he secured the Republican endorsement this spring.
Honour, 48, was in his first political campaign and stressed his outsider credentials. After a career as a venture capitalist that led him to California, Honour returned to his native Minnesota to raise his three children. He spent the most on the race thanks to personal wealth, and took some of the most strongly conservative positions, too — such as saying he would lay off government workers to save taxpayers money.
Seifert, 42, was making his second attempt at the office four years after he didn’t get the GOP’s backing in his first bid. A former legislator who served 14 years in St. Paul, Seifert emphasized his status as the only lifelong Minnesotan who presently lives far from the Twin Cities area. His campaign had the smallest budget, depending mostly on Seifert’s hustle around the state to do interviews with small-town newspapers and radio stations.
Zellers, 44, was the highest political achiever in the field with his two-year stint as House speaker. The position often put him at the bargaining table with Dayton. His role, particularly in the 2011 government shutdown, has been used both by and against him. He holds it up as evidence of staring down Dayton over taxes, but Democrats argue it was a symbol of inflexibility.
As in past years, the fall election will feature a wild card in the form of an Independence Party candidate. But Hannah Nicollet may make less of a difference than previous IP candidates because she failed to qualify for the public campaign subsidy that allowed them to run visible campaigns.
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