A lot of people in the Willmar area Senate district were surprised when Michael Cruze announced he would run against longtime lawmaker and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson in the primary. Johnson himself was less surprised, and more suspicious.
"There are some dirty tricks that have gone on here," Johnson said.
Johnson claims that Cruze, a retired Minnesota state trooper, is actually a Republican masquerading as a Democrat.
"All indications are he has been planted by the Republican Party and my November opponent," Johnson said.
A state GOP spokesman says the Republican Party has nothing to do with Cruze's candidacy. Joe Gimse, the Republican candidate who will face the winner of the primary, told Minneota Public Radio the same. Some say Johnson's claim is ironic, since the veteran lawmaker was once a Republican himself.
DFLers say their proof is found on attendee lists from two Republican events. Cruze's name is on those lists. And while Cruze admits that's true, he says that doesn't mean he's active in the Republican Party.
"An attendee list is a wish list of people they'd like to have come. They try to encourage people to come, and sometimes names get put down that just kind of fill the blanks. It means nothing," Cruze said.
Cruze maintains he's not Republican, but a conservative Democrat in a part of the state where DFLers are often opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
"I got into the race to offer myself as a choice. It seems like there's a stranglehold on the party right now with the metro liberal agenda," Cruze said.
Cruz says he thinks voters in west central Minnesota are displeased with some of the stands Dean Johnson has taken in the Legislature.
It seems like there's a stranglehold on the party right now with the metro liberal agenda.Michael Cruze
Last session, Johnson blocked the effort for a state-wide vote to ban gay marriage. And he also prevented a vote on a bill prohibiting publicly funded abortions. Johnson says he opposed the bill because the Supreme Court has ruled that type of measure unconstitutional.
Regardless, it was a move that incensed abortion opponents, like the group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. MCCL has endorsed Johnson's opponent in the primary election.
MCCL Executive Director Scott Fishbach says his group supported Johnson in past campaigns, but not this year.
"This is a district where we have been supportive of the individual that worked against us. So it's kind of a wake-up call for folks out there as to what Dean did," Fishbach said.
The MCCL recently spawned a new organization called Truth PAC, a political action committee set up soley to oppose Johnson's campaign.
The group's Web site plays up Johnson's public apology on the Senate floor last session for what he called an "inaccurate statement" he made to a group of pastors about gay marriage. Johnson told the group that several Minnesota Supreme Court justices assured him they wouldn't overturn a state law banning same-sex marriage. Johnson later admitted that was an embellishment.
Conservative political action groups, and Johnson's opponent Michael Cruze, are sending their message to more than just conservative Democrats. Cruze is also asking independents and Republicans to turn out on primary day to vote for him, a tactice which is allowed under Minnesota's primary election system.
But Paula O'Loughlin, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, says crossover voting is not likely to make a difference in this primary.
"I just don't see it mattering. That requires a certain level of energy and anger. And I think there's some anger, but I don't know if it's that strong," O'Loughlin said. O'Loughlin says the outcome of the primary election will depend on whether socially conservative voters turn out to vote against Dean Johnson.
O'Loughlin is not convinced that will happen. She says his experience and leadership position in the Legislature still makes him a tough candidate to beat.