Johnson and Dayton ready for campaign, hoping for a positive one

Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson at his victory party at Digbys's in Plymouth, Minn, August 12, 2014.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

Republican gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson is promising to use several ideas from his primary opponents as he campaigns against Gov. Mark Dayton.

Johnson defeated House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, businessman Scott Honour and state Rep. Kurt Zellers on Tuesday to win the GOP nomination.

In a show of party unity, the four men met Wednesday at the state Capitol, where Johnson said the hard-fought primary against three formidable opponents made him a stronger candidate for the general election.

• More: Johnson says jobs the top priority of his campaign for governor
• Photos: Primary night in Minnesota

Johnson said Honour taught him the need for bold action, Seifert taught him the importance of rural Minnesota and Zellers showed him that "not giving an inch" on taxes or spending is a good idea.

"I think that is actually one of the two things we have to have as a party if we want to beat Mark Dayton," Johnson said. "We have to be united as a Republican Party. We have been divided in the past, in years past, and it's really hurt us. We can't do that this year."

In addition to unity, Johnson said the Republican ticket needs a vision that will attract independent voters in November. He said his vision includes lower taxes, less government spending, public school reforms, reduced government involvement in health care and a belief that the poor can move up without a redistribution of wealth.

"That's a vision I think that people in Minnesota who maybe aren't political [and] certainly don't consider themselves Republicans, need to hear," he said.

Johnson thanked his primary rivals for waging a generally positive campaign that didn't become personal, and said he wants to see the same tone in the weeks ahead with Dayton. But Johnson predicted that DFL groups will take frequent aim at him and his record.

"They're going to hammer me on everything under the sun," Johnson said. "They're going to turn me into the guy who wants to drown kittens in the river for fun, whether it's women's issues or whatever. Boy, I think Minnesotans are just tired of that. I'm not going to engage in that."

Gov. Mark Dayton shakes hands with local officials
Gov. Mark Dayton, center, shakes hands with Minnesota State University - Mankato President Richard Davenport outside the Mankato Civic Center Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. At left is Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Still, Johnson did some hammering of his own on the Democratic governor and DFL lawmakers for their support of the Senate office building under construction near the state Capitol. He called it a "phenomenal waste of taxpayer dollars." Johnson also criticized the new minimum wage increase Democrats backed as "bad policy."

The Republican candidate likely will have a tough fight against Dayton, who already has reminded voters that Democrats passed a minimum wage increase, legalized same-sex marriage and raised income taxes on the top 2 percent of filers.

They also passed measures popular with independent voters. After raising $2.1 billion in taxes last year, Dayton is touting $443 million in tax cuts passed this year. Funding for all-day kindergarten and increasing school spending are also major talking points.

Dayton said Wednesday that he is looking forward to a busy campaign season now that the Republican Party has picked a nominee to run against him in November.

Dayton said he shares Johnson's desire for a positive campaign. But he added that it is "totally valid" to point out their policy differences. The governor started by questioning Johnson's willingness to scrap future minimum wage increases.

Still, just one day after the primary, Dayton largely took the high road.

"He said something to the effect that I'm a good and decent person," Dayton said. "He's a good and decent person. We have different opinions about what's best for Minnesota and that's why we have elections. So, I hope we can keep it on that plane."

Dayton, who plans to begin to campaign in earnest after Labor Day weekend and the State Fair, came to Mankato on Wednesday to mark the expansion of the city's Civic Center, which was funded in a bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year.

"I look forward to a good discussion of the issues," the governor said. "I'm focused right now on being governor of Minnesota. I have five months left of my term, one way or the other. So that's my focus right now."

Other Democrats won't treat Johnson with as much deference, if a news conference by DFL Party Chair Ken Martin is any indication.

Martin took aim at Johnson, calling the GOP-nominee a "tea party extremist," who wants to turn back the clock.

"Jeff Johnson wants to continue the disastrous policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy while at the same time cutting government services that will help our middle class thrive in this state," Martin said. "That is the wrong policy for Minnesota, and we don't need to go backwards as Jeff Johnson would take us."

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