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Analysis: Sharp contrasts separate Johnson, Dayton

ST. PAUL —Jeff Johnson was 8 years old when Mark Dayton got involved in government, working for then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale.

Since then, Dayton has traveled the state for 39 years, getting to know issues that most Minnesotans may not even realize exist. He did that as state economic development commissioner, state auditor, U.S. senator and governor, as well as in unsuccessful campaigns for Senate and governor.

Since then, Johnson finished growing up in Detroit Lakes, graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, earned a law degree, spent time in Chicago, worked for Cargill, served in the state House, unsuccessfully ran for attorney general and served time as the only Republican on the Hennepin County board.

Dayton is 67, Johnson 47. Dayton is liberal, Johnson conservative. Dayton came from money, Johnson didn’t. Nearly every Minnesotan knows Dayton, not so much for Johnson.

Other than both being nice guys, the two are worlds apart. Minnesotans will have a stark choice when they vote Nov. 4 (or earlier, thanks to a new early-voting law).

Long-time Republican activist Ben Golnik, now Minnesota Jobs Coalition chairman, issued a primary election-night statement Tuesday after Johnson turned back three other major GOP candidates for governor: “Tonight’s results set up the clearest choice for Minnesotans in a generation: Jeff Johnson offers a new pro-growth direction for our state while Mark Dayton represents the discredited policies of the past.”

Unless four years is a generation, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. In 2010, Dayton faced Republican Tom Emmer, who differs relatively little from Johnson when it comes to policy beliefs. However, Emmer had much more of an edge to him (which since has tempered).

This year’s race will be a rerun of liberal vs. conservative, a theme Minnesotans should know well.

Both sides seem to expect a close race in a state that has featured several of them in recent years.

However, GOP activist and blogger Michael Brodkorb warned Republicans after the primary: “GOP had low turnout at precinct caucuses, a state convention that wasn’t full and now more DFLers voted in the primary. Big warning signs.”

Republican Chairman Keith Downey did not act concerned about the low primary turnout, even though GOP voters generally are more faithful in showing up at the polls than Democrats, which was not the case Tuesday.

Neither side was happy with the primary turnout of less than 10 percent of eligible voters (“It is really too bad,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said) but those numbers do not necessarily predict a low general election participation.

While Martin tried to portray low GOP turnout as a sign there was not much excitement for the party’s candidates, the returns show Johnson received solid statewide support. Figures compiled by David Sturrock, chairman of the Southwest Minnesota State University political science department, indicate that more suburban voters than expected turned out Tuesday to support fellow suburbanite Johnson.

Johnson earned especially strong support in northwestern Minnesota, where he and his wife grew up, and the southeast. The primary could indicate those will be some of the most competitive regions since in 2010, Dayton also got lots of votes in those areas, as well as the normally DFL-dominated northeast.

Sturrock reported that the three rural Minnesota congressional districts, across the northern, western and southern parts of the state, showed the best turnout, with an average of 27,000 Republican voters. In an election where rural voters were expected to dominate, suburban districts came close behind, with 24,700 on average, and urban districts trailed with 13,500.

In the Nov. 4 election, Dayton can be expected to do well in the Minneapolis and St. Paul urban cores, but Johnson’s time on the Hennepin County board could help him in the suburbs. Greater Minnesota could be a swing area, as usual, with Johnson promoting his Detroit Lakes upbringing and his farmer running mate Bill Kuisle, while Dayton reminds voters that he has been around all of the state a long time.

Davis covers the Minnesota Capitol for Forum News Service. Read his blog at

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.