The biggest surprise of the August 14 primary was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s defeat in the Republican nominating contest, which he lost to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, 53 percent to 44 percent. While the primary season has produced plenty of examples that President Trump and his followers have taken over the Republican Party, none has been quite as poignant as Pawlenty’s loss given that he has won his share of GOP primaries and was elected Governor twice. But, if Johnson won the nomination with relative ease, the general election will be a more difficult proposition, putting the contest in the Lean Democratic column.
Republicans put Minnesota on its target list because the 2016 presidential race was closer than most predicted; Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by just 1.5 percent. Strategists also believe that voters are ready for change after eight years of a Democratic Governor. But, President Trump is unpopular in the state; his job approval was 38 percent in a July Marist College poll for NBC News, and voters seem pretty content with outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s stewardship of the state.
Democrats nominated U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who won the five-way primary with 47 percent. State Rep. Erin Murphy, who had the party’s endorsement, placed second with 32 percent. Walz, who spent much of his career as an educator and as an officer in the National Guard, was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, defeating a GOP incumbent. He has represented the 1st congressional district, which covers the southern part of the state from its border with South Dakota to its border with Wisconsin and includes Rochester and Mankato. It has a Partisan Voting Index of R+5, meaning that it votes five points more Republican than the country as a whole. Trump carried the district in 2016, 53 percent to 38 percent for Clinton. It also means that Walz is no stranger to difficult races. He was re-elected in 2016 by just 2,547 votes. It will be difficult to portray Walz as a liberal; he didn’t support Nancy Pelosi’s bid for Democratic leader after the 2016 election and has amassed a relatively moderate voting record.
Johnson was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000 and served until 2006 when he ran for and lost a bid for Attorney General. He served as a Republican National Committeeman from 2011 through 2016. Johnson won a seat on the Hennepin County Commission in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012 and 2016. In 2014, he was the GOP nominee for Governor, taking on incumbent Dayton. Although it was a very good year for Republicans nationally, Dayton bested Johnson 50 percent to 45 percent. In the 2016 presidential contest, Johnson chaired U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s Minnesota campaign, then U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when Rubio exited the race; he ultimately supported Trump. Trump endorsed Johnson the morning after the primary and Johnson has embraced the President’s support.
Democrats will portray Johnson as too conservative and out of touch with voters, pointing to his pro-life position on abortion, his support for dismantling what’s left of the Affordable Care Act, and his support for Trump’s policies on immigration. Johnson contends that a Walz administration will simply be a continuation of the Dayton administration. But, voters aren’t unhappy with Dayton, and at least stylistically; Walz and Dayton are very different.
Finally, primary turn out should worry Republicans as 582,811 ballots were cast in the Democratic primary, compared to 320,242 in the Republican nominating contest.
Pawlenty had his own political persona that is quite separate from Trump and national Republicans, and he had a relationship with general election voters in the state. This is why national GOP strategists were enthusiastic about his candidacy. Johnson doesn’t have these advantages. He is a conservative who is tethered to an unpopular Trump and running in a strong Democratic year in a swing state. As such, this race has gotten more difficult for Republicans and thus moves to the Lean Democratic column.
Image: Jeff Johnson | Credit: Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP