By Bill Salisbury, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and and Don Davis, Forum News Service
Election campaigns often do not follow the “Minnesota nice” philosophy, but political insiders wonder if that might be different this year after Jeff Johnson won the Republican nomination to run against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
Johnson, the GOP-endorsed candidate who defeated three rivals in Tuesday’s primary election, will try to deny Dayton a second term. But he will, probably, do it nicely with a smile on his face.
The Hennepin County commissioner and former legislator from Plymouth is an affable guy who shuns angry attacks on political opponents. That description also fits Dayton.
Asked at a news conference if he’s too nice to win, Johnson replied, “Overall, I think I am a nice guy.”
That probably is a good thing, he said.
“Some people assume Republicans are kind of nasty,” Johnson said. “We are not. But being able to show that to people is important.”
He quickly added, however, that “I’m going to contrast where I stand with Mark Dayton” and said he will point out where he thinks the governor’s policies are wrong.
The contrast won’t be hard to draw. Johnson is as staunchly conservative as Dayton is liberal. But their personalities are comparably civil.
The GOP primary was a relatively low-key contest, in part because of the tone Johnson set and since the party’s convention endorsed him, he widely was seen as the frontrunner.
Johnson has a history of trying to bring factions together, the most notable coming at the 2012 Republican state convention in St. Cloud. Ron Paul supporters dominated the convention, pushing traditional Republican activists to the side.
That is when Johnson, then the Republican national committeeman, went in front of the convention as peacemaker.
Johnson, a Detroit Lakes native, called tension in the convention “the elephant in the room.”
“You know, it is not new, it is OK,” he said of the tension. “It’s not new, but it is real.”
Johnson told Paul supporters that they must realize that traditional Republicans “have been sitting in your seats for 20 years.”
“The chatter is” that Paul backers do not care about the party, Johnson said, and would not support GOP candidates.
“Make sure that doesn’t happen,” Johnson advised. “If we are all part of the Republican Party, then we all need to vote for Republicans.”
“Ron Paul haters,” Johnson said, “my advice to you is: Get over it.”
Johnson’s speech eased tensions.
Dayton has become a harsh critic of many things Republican as he nears the end of his four-year term, a feeling mostly fueled by tough battles with Republicans over the 2011 budget and a resulting state government shutdown. Still, Dayton often is seen with Republicans, and does not lump everyone with those he fought three years ago.
In his first news conference as governor, Dayton took the unheard-of step of inviting opponents to the microphone to rebut his comments.
Dozens of people opposed to his plan of getting the state more deeply involved in the federal Medicaid program jammed into the governor’s reception room.
“It is the people’s room,” Dayton said. “This is where democracy occurs.”
He asked three protesters to rebut things he and other supporters said about the need to expand Medicaid. That somewhat quieted the protesters.
And while Dayton did not make it a practice of allowing opponents to speak at his events, even his opponents call him a nice guy.
His 2010 Republican opponent, rough-around-the-edges Tom Emmer, and Dayton met in about 30 debates. They showed sharp policy differences, but both said they came away from the campaign liking each other.
If the 2014 candidates sound too sweet for your political tastes, don’t worry. The contest will not be all sugar and no spice.
Johnson joked that he expects Democrats to accuse him of “drowning kittens in the river for the fun of it.”
State DFL Chairman Ken Martin did not do that, but called Johnson a “proud member of the Tea Party” who favors tax cuts for the wealthy and government service cuts for everyone else.
Martin said Johnson “wants to take us back to the days when people were kicked off their health insurance because of pre-existing conditions … balancing budget with gimmicks … shutdowns and borrowed money from our school districts.”
Shortly after Martin took his shots, a spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association fired off a news release accusing Dayton of embracing “every component of Obamacare,” wasting millions on Minnesota’s health exchange, raising taxes and forcing a government shutdown.
The DFL governor, he said, has been an “abysmal failure,” spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.
The exchange suggested political parties and outside groups likely will play “bad cops” to the candidates’ “good cops.”
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.