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Burned before, GOP governor hopefuls quiet on abortion, gay marriage

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Minnesota GOP candidates
Four of the candidates seeking the GOP nomination for governor appeared at a news conference in March.
Tom Scheck/MPR News

The four Republicans running for governor in next month's primary aren't saying much about a topic important to many Republicans: social issues. 

Even as Scott Honour, Jeff Johnson, Marty Seifert and Kurt Zellers tout their conservative credentials on the campaign trail, they're largely steering clear of topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. Voters, they argue, are more interested in taxes, spending and other economic issues.

All four GOP candidates oppose abortion. They gave identical answers to the survey questions posed by the group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life for its primary voters' guide, including a pledge to support legislation to limit and/or prohibit taxpayer funded abortions.

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Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate, said he would sign legislation that fits his views on abortion if it reaches his desk. But he said he "won't be advancing that at all," if he's elected. Johnson said he also supports traditional marriage between a man and a woman, but has no interest in trying to repeal the same-sex marriage law enacted in 2013.

"I think most of us are past that," said Johnson. Most Minnesotans want the candidates talking about issues "they see as more relevant in their lives, and that's where I am," he added. "If a bill were to come to my desk, I would sign it. But I'm not going to expend any energy at all pushing that, because that's not why I'm running for governor."  

It's a similar story with Johnson's Aug. 12 primary rivals.

Businessman Scott Honour said he's not bringing up social issues, and the Republicans he's been talking to aren't either. 

"The only time it comes up is when reporters ask about it, right," he laughed. "What we're talking about is how we're looking forward at what the right priorities should be for the state, and that's what my message has been very clear about." 

One reason the candidates aren't talking about divisive emotional issues may be because they've been burned by them in the past. 

Republicans tried to ban same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2012. But voters rejected the measure, and the GOP lost majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate. 

Former Minnesota House Speaker Zellers believes there were multiple factors at play and doesn't blame one loss on the other. But Zellers made it clear he believes the marriage debate is over.

"I think people on both sides of the aisle used it for political purposes, for fundraising purposes. But it's a done issue. I'm not talking about it anymore," Zellers said. "The voters spoke ... now we know where Minnesotans are."

That's not what some conservatives want to hear. 

Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council, said she doesn't know why the candidates are avoiding social issues but added that conservative voters are noticing.

"We've heard from folks around the state that share our values, there is some concern," Leva said. "The conservative base is looking for a leader that not only shares their values but also will work to protect their values and religious freedoms and things like that at the governmental level."

A Republican could be elected governor this year, and the House majority could swing back to the GOP. But the Minnesota Senate isn't up for re-election this year and will remain in DFL control for at least two more years. 

That political reality is why Former state Rep. Marty Seifert said he's not talking about a repeal of the same-sex marriage law or any other DFL-passed laws he opposes.

"It is my job as governor of the state to faithfully execute the laws that we have," he added. "The laws that we have are things like medical marijuana, gay marriage, the highest minimum wage in the United States. You may or may not disagree with that as a citizen or a policy maker, but be realistic that the stuff isn't getting repealed, and it's a waste of time to argue about it anymore."