Jeff Johnson, a Republican rooted in Minnesota politics for a dozen years, on Sunday became the latest candidate to announce a 2014 challenge to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, casting himself as the type of candidate the GOP needs to break its electoral dry spell.
Johnson, 46, is the second candidate to launch a bid in as many weeks. He joins Orono businessman Scott Honour in vying for the GOP nomination.
He played up his upbringing in Minnesota, where he has spent nearly all of his adult life. He and wife, Sondi, have two sons with names reflective of Minnesota's Scandinavian heritage, Thor and Rolf. Sondi, a Crookston native and Crookston Central graduate, is the daughter of Lloyd and Shirley Lee.
The Hennepin County commissioner is hoping to frame himself as the GOP candidate conservative enough for convention delegates but without the hard-right reputation that could scare off general election voters. He said his party has had difficulty shaking its image as being out to protect the rich, and that his candidacy would help it do that.
"We can't win a statewide race with only Republican votes. The numbers just aren't there in Minnesota," Johnson said. "But we also need to recognize we can't win a statewide race without a very excited and energized Republican base."
He added, "I think the activists of this party are going to be ready to pick someone who is reliably conservative and very principled, but who also can appeal to a broader group of people."
To that end, Johnson told reporters that he personally wants marriage to remain exclusively between a man and a woman, but he wouldn't pressure Republican legislators to vote against a gay marriage bill in coming weeks at the Capitol. "There shouldn't be some effort to drive them out of the party," he said.
Johnson said he doesn't support tax increases, but that he wouldn't sign a no-new-taxes pledge — or any other pledge — because he thinks they become a distraction.
Since 2011, he has been the Republican National Committeeman from Minnesota. Johnson said he will relinquish that position once a successor is chosen later this year.
His position in the state Republican Party's leadership ranks makes him familiar to the activists who will endorse a candidate next year. He said he would abide by the party's endorsement, ruling out a primary bid if another candidate gets the GOP nod at its state convention.
Johnson has been on the governing board of Minnesota's most populous county since 2009 and was a three-term state legislator before that. He ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2006.
Dayton has said repeatedly he will seek a second term, which would be the first re-election campaign of his political career. Dayton said he's steering clear of taking on possible opponents for the time being.
Page 2 of 2 - "Ultimately the Republicans will decide who my opponent is and I'm not going to engage with anybody in particular until they've made their decision of who their candidate is going to be," Dayton said in late April. "We'll have a spirited contest, no doubt, and the people of Minnesota can decide if they want to keep me around or not."
Ken Martin, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, took a swipe at Johnson by characterizing him as "a classic politician trying to climb the ladder."
Republicans haven't done well in Minnesota in recent years. The party hasn't won a statewide race since Gov. Tim Pawlenty won a second term in 2006 in an otherwise washout year.
The governor's race field is almost certain to grow beyond the two GOP candidates already announced. Others said to be considering campaigns include: former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, state Sen. David Thompson, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, state Sen. Julie Rosen and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.
Unlike Honour, who announced his candidacy in an online video, Johnson opted for the old-fashioned rollout in a community hall attended by family, friends and longtime supporters. But unlike his Republican rival, Johnson lacks the personal wealth that Honour has said he may use toward a campaign. Johnson made a plea for small-buck donations before leaving the stage at his event.
An employment lawyer by training, Johnson now works full time in the Hennepin County post.