By Don Davis
A Minnesota Republican who grew up in Detroit Lakes and now is commissioner in the state’s largest county became the party’s endorsed candidate for governor Saturday night.
Jeff Johnson gained 1,386 votes to Marty Seifert’s 118 after a controversial ending to the state party convention at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center.
Next up for Johnson is facing three fellow Republicans in an Aug. 12 primary election. The winner goes against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in November.
Johnson, with his family and running mate Bill Kuisle of Rochester behind him, pledged to win the backing of “every little part, every little faction of the party.”
“Mark Dayton is not going to know what hit him until the middle of December,” Johnson predicted.
The Democratic governor was endorsed for his second term, without significant opposition, at his party’s convention in Duluth. He does not have a primary challenger.
Johnson gained the endorsement at 8:35 p.m. after his two remaining challengers stopped campaigning at the convention.
Just after 7:30 p.m., state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville left the race. Shortly after that, former state Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall said he was releasing his delegates. Thompson will not run in the primary, but Seifert said he will.
Thompson asked his supporters to vote for Johnson and dropped out of the race. Seifert made no suggestions to his people and did not withdraw from the endorsement contest, forcing a fourth ballot.
State GOP Chairman Keith Downey took to the podium after Seifert’s comments and criticized the only rural Republican candidate for refusing to withdraw from the race. Downey accused Seifert of trying to deny anyone the endorsement because after he made his speech delegates began leaving. If too few delegates voted, there could be no endorsement.
“That was uncalled for,” Downey said of Seifert’s action.
Former party Chairman Ron Elbensteiner, who said he voted for Seifert on the first of four ballots, predicted that Seifert’s move will cost him a chance of winning the primary.
“That was the most classless” candidate action he has seen, the former chairman added.
In his speech to delegates in which he told them he would compete in the primary, Seifert said that he won grassroots support in last February’s caucus. That is a reason he gave for moving on to the primary.
Early votes showed a virtual three-way tie among Johnson, Thompson and Seifert, but Johnson picked up ground through the afternoon and night.
Hibbing teacher Rob Farnsworth fell out of the race on the second ballot after missing the threshold to continue with less than 2 percent of the delegates’ support.
Thompson and Johnson took jabs at two candidates who were not seeking convention support, instead running in the primary election: Twin Cities businessman Scott Honour and former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove.
Johnson was introduced as “from Detroit Lakes, Minn.,” and emphasized that he grew up there, his wife came from Crookston and they attended college in Moorhead. He added that his running mate, former state Rep. Bill Kuisle of Rochester, is a life-long farmer.
“Our roots, our values are in greater Minnesota,” Johnson said.
The rural push is part of this year’s political culture, where rural voters are being courted, and Johnson, specifically, was countering Seifert’s rural strength.
While emphasizing a rural background, Johnson said he also should do well in the suburbs, where he lives, and urban areas because he deals with them as county commissioner.
Johnson said he brings a sense of humor to the race, which he plans to use to battle Dayton, who he called “the worst governor in the United States of America.”
Johnson is in his second county commission term. He also served in the state House.
Lori Swanson badly defeated Johnson in her first run for state attorney general, which was Johnson’s only other statewide race.
Honour did not seek the party’s endorsement, but a few feet away from the GOP convention he announced his running mate Saturday.
State Sen. Karin Housley of St. Mary’s Point joined the Honour campaign.
“Karin, like me, has spent most of her life working in the private sector, not in government,” Honour said. “She has the ‘get things done’ approach that is so critical to making our state better for all Minnesotans.”
Housley had considered running for governor herself.
The second governor candidate not seeking the party endorsement, Zellers, also made an appearance in Rochester.
In an interview, Zellers said that since Honour planned to skip the convention and go to the primary, he felt that need, too. And rather than taking up delegates’ time, he would not seek the convention endorsement.
Former talk radio host Thompson emphasized education in his speech to the convention, complaining that government is shutting out private education.
“We are institutionalizing liberalism,” he said about Democrats making education decisions.
Throughout their two-day convention, Republicans beat up on Dayton, but no one more than Seifert.
Seifert called Dayton “a liberal huckster” who sells snake oil. “We are here to give people a real cure.”
He was critical of Democratic control of state government in general.
“We are quickly becoming a state that people want to leave,” the former state House Republican leader said.