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Primary 2014: Johnson wins GOP race for governor

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Johnson greeted supporters as he entered Digby's.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson greeted supporters as he entered Digby's in Plymouth, where his campaign victory party was held Tuesday evening.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

Updated: 11:25 p.m. | Posted: 5:45 p.m.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson defeated three challengers to win the Republican Party's nomination for governor.

The four GOP gubernatorial candidates
The four GOP gubernatorial candidates, starting top right, are Kurt Zellers, Jeff Johnson, Scott Honour and Marty Seifert.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

With more than 91 percent of precincts statewide reporting, Johnson had more than 30 percent of the vote, outdistancing House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, businessman Scott Honour and state Rep. Kurt Zellers.

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Johnson, who won the GOP endorsement this spring, will challenge Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

At his campaign party in Plymouth, Minn., Johnson said he will contrast his vision for Minnesota with Dayton's promises. He said he is going to run a positive race against the governor, whom he called a popular incumbent some say will be difficult to beat.

Johnson said he hopes his Republican primary opponents "walk side by side with us" throughout the rest if he campaign.

As the results came in, Johnson and his campaign advisers analyzed the returns by county. Early on, he said he felt confident about his chances.

"I'm hovering between 28 and 32 percent of the vote in most areas of the state," said Johnson, who banked on the Republican endorsement to help him win. "I thought it would take roughly 35 percent of the vote to win but I'm feeling pretty good right now."

Several of the party's other endorsed candidates, including State Auditor candidate Randy Gilbert and Attorney General candidate Scott Newman, were at Johnson's party.

Marty Seifert chats with his supporters.
Marty Seifert chats with his supporters Tuesday evening at Rounders Sports Bar in Mankato, Minn., during his elections results party.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Johnson, who served in the Minnesota House from 2000 until 2006, won his current job in 2008, after running for state attorney general in 2006 and losing by a wide margin.

His inability to win that statewide race may have played a factor in his opponents' decisions to challenge him. Republicans have traditionally agreed to drop out of the race if they don't win the endorsement from state convention delegates as Seifert did four years ago when he stepped aside and backed Tom Emmer.

Johnson's campaign adviser, Gregg Peppin, spent much of the night paying close attention to how well his candidate does in northeastern Minnesota and in the western Twin Cities suburbs.

Peppin said he heard many people supported Johnson because he is the GOP's endorsed candidate.

"The anecdotal support is strong for the endorsed candidates," Peppin said. "We'll see if that translates into actual people go to the polls and vote."

Zellers, of Maple Grove, campaigned on his work in the Legislature and borrowed a page from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who won the governor's race in 2002 after pledging not to raise taxes.

A former House speaker, Zeller hoped voters would remember how he and other Republicans in the Legislature refused Gov. Dayton's demands to raise taxes to balance the state budget. However, Zellers failed in his attempt to maintain Republican control of the House in 2012. Democrats won in part by blaming Republicans for the government shutdown.

In his concession speech, Zellers said he was prepared to help Johnson defeat Dayton in the general election.

"I'll be happy to raise money, to recommend him to my family, co-workers, anyone who voted for me," Zellers said. "I want to see Mark Dayton retired from politics."

Zellers said his candidacy was hurt by low voter turnout. He also said the party's endorsement of Johnson figured in the outcome.

"It doesn't mean quite what it used to - but I think that's part of it," Zellers said.

Zellers' pledge not to raise taxes as governor is a direct contrast to Dayton, who lived up to his campaign promise to make the wealthiest Minnesotans pay more.

Among Zellers supporters was Steve Tripp of Maple Grove, who supported the candidate because of his fiscal conservatism and anti-tax campaign.

Tripp said he would get behind the Republican who won.

"Parties have a way of healing," Tripp said. "Anyone who is conservative or conservative-leaning has watched what the liberal controlled government House and Senate has done to the state - we're going to rally around anything that represents a change."

Another Zeller supporter, 19-year-old Brandon Sieve of Maple Grove, said the fact that Zellers didn't have the party's backing is a plus in his book.

"The Republican party endorsement unfortunately isn't as strong as it used to be," said Sieve, who voted for the first time Tuesday in a statewide election. "There was a time when it was and that time is not today. Conservatives don't have a ton of faith in the so-called 'Republican Party' anymore."

A fractured primary contest may actually be a good thing for the candidates, said Josh Ralph of Maple Grove.

"I think you see who is going to work, who is going to get out and get up and make the calls every day, who's going to see the people," Ralph said. "I think you see who wants it more."

Seifert, of Marshall, decided to pursue the nomination without the party's endorsement this time. He has spent much of the campaign in rural Minnesota trying to convince rural senior citizens who traditionally vote in heavy numbers in primaries to cast their ballots for a candidate who lived his entire life outside the Twin Cities.

Former state Rep. Marty Seifert conceded to GOP Gov. candidate Jeff Johnson, saying he would fully support Johnson's campaign to defeat DFL incumbent Governor Mark Dayton.

In his concession speech Seifert said he would fully support Johnson's campaign to defeat Dayton.

"I certainly congratulate Jeff Johnson, [he] ran a good race, he is my friend," said Seifert, while standing among a crowd of supporters in Mankato Tuesday night.

"Our goal right now, from this day forward for the next 83 days, will be to make sure that Mark Dayton is defeated and we have a Republican governor when the fall of 2014 votes are cast," Seifert said.

Many of Seifert's supporters expressed disappointment but also said they would stand behind Johnson in the race to the general election in November.

Honour, of Orono, was in his first run for office. The former head of a global investment company in California, he is campaigning as an outsider whose experience in business could help him lead the state.

He has also pledged to cut state spending by 10 percent, freeze future minimum wage hikes and cut the overall number of state workers.

Honour, who spent at least $900,000 of his own money on the race, said he did everything he could to get his message out and is confident that message was resonating with voters. He said it's just a question now of who turned out to vote.

Honour predicted the party will quickly unify behind the primary winner.

"The four of us have a common message," Honour said. "These guys are great guys. I really like them personally."