GOP Rep. Dean drops out of governor's race, backs Jeff Johnson

Matt Dean and Jeff Johnson
Rep. Matt Dean, left, announces that he's dropping out of the Republican race for governor and is endorsing Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, right.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Updated 2:10 p.m. | Posted 9:12 a.m.

Republican State Rep. Matt Dean said Thursday he is dropping out of the race for Minnesota governor.

Dean told reporters at the Capitol he was "enthusiastically" supporting Jeff Johnson, the Hennepin County commissioner who lost the 2014 governor's race to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. "After prayerful consideration and discussion with my family, I decided to suspend my campaign and support Jeff ... He has the political chops to get elected."

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He said he also has no plans to run again for his House seat.

Dean is a seven-term Republican from Dellwood, and a onetime majority leader in the state House. He's worked as an architect, but was known in the House for his policy initiatives regarding health care — particularly for trying to eliminate MNsure, the state's health insurance exchange program.

Dean chairs the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. He's also considered a leader of the conservative wing of House Republicans.

Dean said he felt party unity had to be a top priority as the gubernatorial races pick up.

"I have been talking to a lot of delegates all over the state. It's a big state, I found out, and that organizing effort is going to be very, very important. Talking it over with Laura and our family, close campaign activists, I felt this was the right decision," Dean said, noting his wife's role in his decision.

Dean started his campaign in July. His departure comes just over a month after he topped a GOP straw poll at a party central committee meeting in Brainerd, Minn.

Other Republicans in the race include Johnson, who was beaten by Dayton in 2014 by more than 100,000 votes. Former state Republican Party chair Keith Downey is also in the race, as is Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.

"I hate using labels like frontrunner or anything like that, but this gives me tremendous support," said Johnson, who finished second in the Brainerd straw poll in December.

Another Republican state legislator, State Sen. David Osmek, of Mound, dropped out of the race two weeks ago after a fifth-place showing at the Brainerd meeting.

Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not definitively ruled out a run for governor, although he did take his name out of consideration for a U.S. Senate run this year.

DFLers in the race include 1st District Rep. Tim Walz, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Reps. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, Tina Liebling of Rochester and Paul Thissen of Minneapolis. DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson is also thought to be considering a run.

The 2018 race features plenty of fault lines for Republicans.

There are questions over how closely to align with President Trump, whether to lean more heavily on social issues over pocketbook concerns and if extensive past experience in government is seen as a liability or an asset.

Johnson has released two of six planks in an action plan he says would shrink state government's footprint and lower taxes.

Downey is a former Minnesota House member and Minnesota Republican Party chair. Despite those prominent posts, he's framing himself as an outsider who would shake up state government and what it does.

The race, he said, remains fluid.

"The number of undecideds out there is substantial, so it's wide open and we're fighting hard and think we're well positioned," Downey said.

The GOP nominee race also includes former Naval officer Phillip Parrish and less visible candidates Ole Savior and Jeffrey Wharton.

Former Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner is among those who hasn't picked a candidate to back in this campaign.

He's still tight with many of the party's big donors. He says some of them have their money parked until they know if Pawlenty is running.

"There are a lot of people out there waiting for him to make a decision either way whether he's in or out," Eibensteiner said. "Realistically, I think Tim has got to make that decision here pretty quickly."

Familiarity with Pawlenty and his ability to raise a lot of money fast could make him an instant favorite for the nomination.

He's ruled out a run for U.S. Senate, but hasn't said whether he'd leave behind a big paycheck at the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., to regain the office he held for two terms.

Democrats also lack a clear favorite in a crowded race. It's possible neither party will have a clear sense of their nominees until after an August primary.