Republican contenders for governor prepare for their primary fight

With Minnesota's primary election about six weeks away, the four Republican candidates for governor have been busy raising money and reaching out to voters.

The Aug. 12 contest is the first competitive statewide primary in two decades for the Republican party.

Here's how candidates are approaching the race:

Jeff Johnson, Hennepin County commissioner

Jeff Johnson
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson addresses supporters after winning the GOP endorsement for governor on May 31, 2014.
Tom Scheck/MPR News

Johnson emerged as the frontrunner in the primary after he won the Republican Party endorsement last month. He now has the party's resources and people behind him.

"We'll see what the endorsement is worth, and I think it will be worth a lot," Johnson said.

The Republican Party of Minnesota isn't as financially strong as it was a decade ago, but Johnson still believes the party's help will catapult him to victory. He predicts between 150,000 and 200,000 people will vote in the primary, and he expects the party to contact all of them on his behalf.

"You can spend all of the money in the world, but the only way the non-endorsed candidate pulls it off is if they're able to convince a lot of new people to show up at the polls," he said. "The ones who you would expect to show up care about the endorsement process."

Party leaders say their effort has already begun. They've already set up 10 Republican victory offices across the state and plan to create another 10 before election day. Volunteers will knock on doors and make up to 500,000 calls on Johnson's behalf.

Republican Party Chair Keith Downey says volunteers will also start an absentee ballot campaign to help get votes for Johnson.

"The 15,000, almost 16,000 people, who participated in the precinct caucuses that support Republicans -- you would presume by their participation in that -- that's the real resource and the asset when you think about the endorsed candidate versus an unendorsed candidate," he said.

The three candidates challenging Johnson have been forced to build their own campaign infrastructure to make their case to voters.

Marty Seifert, former state representative

Marty Seifert
Marty Seifert
Tom Scheck/MPR News

Seifert, of Marshall, has been focusing on rural Minnesota. He downplayed the importance of the party endorsement.

"When I look at Minnesota's history, with four of the last five governors not having been endorsed by one of the two major parties, Minnesotans kind of like a maverick," he said. "I've embraced that label. I'm going against the grain and process that we're doing here but I think people appreciate that. "

Kurt Zellers, former GOP House speaker

Kurt Zellers
Republican Kurt Zellers, a former speaker of the Minnesota House, held a kickoff event for his campaign for governor in his hometown of Maple Grove on Sunday, June 23, 2013.
Rupa Shenoy/MPR News

Zellers is telling voters about his legislative career. Zellers says as speaker of the House in 2011 and 2012, he stood up to Governor Dayton's proposed tax hikes in 2011 and won, even though it took a state government shutdown.

"When I talk to Republican primary voters, but also folks at a manufacturing plant in Morris, they say they want the same thing," Zellers said. "We want someone who has done it. If we run into another budget deficit again, we want somebody who has proven to us that they have done it without raising taxes."

Zellers stepped down from his leadership position after Democrats won control of the House in 2012, a year after the shutdown.

Scott Honour, businessman

Scott Honour
Wayzata businessman Scott Honour, a Republican who will run for governor in 2014, during an interview Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 at Crown Plaza in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

While Zellers is defending his work in state government Honour, of Orono, is campaigning on being a government outsider. Honour made millions as a private equity manager and says voters will appreciate that he helped turn businesses around.

"We're seeing this across the country that there's a real sentiment toward folks coming from the private sector," Honour said. "We saw it in 2010. Rick Snyder went straight from the private sector to being governor of Michigan. Rick Scott went straight from the private sector to being governor of Florida. We're seeing other private sector Republicans winning primaries in other states. We saw that in Illinois and California."

Honour has spent $300,000 of his own money on the campaign this year, and the other candidates are waiting to see if he spends millions more to try to win the primary.

But that isn't the only question heading into the primary. The biggest may be whether the summertime contest will generate much interest at all.

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