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Conventions thrust parties toward intense governor primaries

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Delegates sing the national anthem before the convention.
Delegates sing the national anthem before the start of the 2018 Republican Party state convention Friday at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Minnesota's major political parties are in for a long, hot summer of campaigning before they know who they'll present as the general-election candidates for governor.

A pair of weekend conventions failed to deliver finality. Although there were some hopefuls knocked out of consideration, both Republicans and DFLers head toward August primaries with fierce competition.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson speaks to delegates.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson speaks to delegates at the 2018 Republican Party state convention Saturday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Republicans threw their party endorsement to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who now has former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty to contend with.

On the DFL side, state Rep. Erin Murphy won party backing but will face 1st District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, and perhaps others, in the Aug. 14 primary.

The complete picture will be known Tuesday when the deadline for filing for the ballot arrives.

But the effort to draw contrasts is already in high gear. 

Minnesota DFL convention
Erin Murphy speaks to supporters after winning the DFL endorsement for Minnesota governor at the state convention Saturday in Rochester.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

In Rochester, Murphy proclaimed victory and stuck to a liberal policy mantle. The former House majority leader vowed to push clean water-protection policies, seek a single-payer health care system, oppose new abortion restrictions, guarantee a $15 hourly wage and enact paid family leave laws.

"It is important that we come together, that we show our full and honest vision for the people of Minnesota, that we show our full heart, that we crush hate with love," Murphy, a nurse, said in accepting the endorsement.

Walz pitched himself as someone able to better appeal to voters in small-town Minnesota while remaining in tune with party values. He ticked off a number of issues he would tackle a governor: double racial equity funding, set the state on a path to a single-payer health care system and pump more money into education. 

"You'd better believe that when we put a public school teacher in the governor's office, we'll fully fund education," said Walz, who was a geography teacher in Mankato.

Minnesota DFL convention
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz rallies delegates at the Mayo Civic Center on Saturday.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

The differences in positions among the Republican candidates also are subtle.

Johnson, who previously served in the Legislature and ran as the GOP nominee for governor in 2014, vowed to shrink government, cut taxes, put limits on refugee settlement in the state and fend off business and personal regulation.

"My boys don't need a nanny anymore and neither do you," the father of two sons said. "We're going to get Minnesota out of the nannying business once and for all."

In his campaign, Pawlenty has been taking similar stances on immigration and declaring his focus will be on boosting the economic prospects of middle-class Minnesota. He skipped the weekend convention and headed straight for the primary. 

Former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Republican Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Republican Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach during a press conference in St. Paul, on May 31, 2018, when Pawlenty announced Fischbach as his running mate.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Going forward, it is going to be healthy for the political discussion and process in Minnesota, to have a broader and larger group of people weigh in on who they want their candidates to be," Pawlenty said last week. "I think that would have a healthy, balancing effect on the political discussion in Minnesota."

Pawlenty is well-known and well-funded — scooping up $1 million in less than a month in the race. Johnson said while he will certainly trail in the money chase, he'll rely on the time and sweat of party activists to propel him forward.

"All I know is if he wants to win in November or if I want to in November, we can't ignore the grassroots of this party," Johnson said. "We will not win that way."

Pawlenty was embarking Monday on a statewide fly-around, with stops in Moorhead, Duluth, Mankato and Rochester. Even there, Johnson was eager to draw a contrast.

"We'll be driving around the state, and we'll be driving around the state in a 2011 Jeep as opposed to flying around the state in a jet," Johnson said Saturday after accepting his party's endorsement. "I think people will appreciate that. I think they want someone who understands it's not all about money."

Delegates gather for the 2018 Republican Party state convention.
Delegates gather before the start of the 2018 Republican Party state convention Friday at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington and a Pawlenty supporter, questioned Johnson's focus on who is in the best position from a resource standpoint.

"I don't think portraying one's self as a victim is a proven election strategy," Garofalo said. "Conservatives want to win in November and Tim Pawlenty gives us the best chance at winning. Denying that is just not an effective election strategy."

Delegates to both conventions were split over whether the primaries would help or hurt their party chances in the fall

DFL delegate Mark Frascone of Eagan said Murphy is battle-tested and would make a great standard-bearer. He wants Walz to stand down.

"Walz has been a bit of a bully in this campaign. And I think he's going to continue to try to bully the party, and I think he needs to stop doing that if he's a Democrat," Frascone said. "We've been bullied by Trump for the last two years. We don't need a Democrat bullying the party."

Minnesota DFL convention
The Mayo Civic Center auditorium in Rochester was packed Saturday for the Minnesota DFL state convention.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

After conceding the endorsement, Walz addressed supporters outside the Mayo Civic Center using a bullhorn and gave every indication he was pressing ahead.

"There are 1,400 people in there," he said. "That primary will be 500,000 Minnesotans, so we're going to ask a lot out of you."

DFL delegate Jay Sieling of Alexandria said he'll stick with Walz. Sieling sees Walz as the candidate who can help the party recover in greater Minnesota, where it has struggled in recent elections.

"I know what kind of messaging comes against us and I think we really need to have an outstate representative, an outstate governor," Sieling said. "And I think Tim is the person that can do that."

Rebecca Otto stands with her running mate, Zarina Baber.
DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto, right, stands with her running mate, Zarina Baber, during a press conference in St. Paul on May 21, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who also sought the endorsement, didn't close the door on moving ahead. And others could make a late entry.

In Duluth, Republican delegate Brenda Fraatz of West St. Paul wasn't with Johnson ahead of his endorsement, but she made sure to grab a T-shirt, bumper stickers and other materials for his campaign as she left. 

Fraatz described Johnson as a true conservative who she'd be proud to have as governor. She offered no such love for Pawlenty. 

"I don't like the way he got into this race. He went outside of the system. He's a spoiler. He stole donors from some of the other candidates who are running," Fraatz said. "He's been outside of the state for what — the last six years  — doing lobbying work. He didn't raise a finger to help any other Republicans."

But delegate Matt Stevens of Elk River said Pawlenty will have his vote in the primary.

"He has by far the best chance to win," Stevens said. "The fundraising is behind him. The PACs are behind him. He's proven that he could win Minnesota."

The Republican endorsement for governor has held up in every campaign since 1994, when incumbent Arne Carlson won a primary without it.

Four years ago, Johnson prevailed in August after being challenged by three other candidates. But he lost in November to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who won a second term.

In 2010, Dayton was the one who toppled an endorsed candidate, beating then House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher in a primary.

— Briana Bierschbach reported from Rochester.