The Republican nomination race for Minnesota governor took a contentious turn Thursday with a hard-hitting TV ad from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
After months of Pawlenty ignoring his primary rival, he unloaded on Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson as part of a six-figure ad campaign, the first commercials he has run during the race. Johnson responded with his own swipes but probably won’t be able to match Pawlenty’s reach, given the relative cash positions of their campaigns.
“Higher taxes, wasteful spending, supporting ObamaCare, that’s the real Jeff Johnson," a narrator says in the Pawlenty commercial.
In a Republican primary, those words sting. But the ad also marked a noted shift for Pawlenty, who came out of political retirement this spring to seek a return to the job he left eight years ago.
Until now, he barely recognized Johnson’s presence in the race even though Johnson has the Republican Party’s convention endorsement.
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Johnson took the sudden attention as a sign "that the race is close."
“It was a good day in the campaign. I said the day that he attacks is a day he knows he might lose. Obviously, we got there earlier than I thought we would,” he said.
Pawlenty’s campaign said Johnson threw the first punches months ago and they’re ready to respond in kind.
“The Pawlenty campaign is not going to take anything for granted, and we want to ensure that Republican primary voters know exactly where Jeff Johnson has been on these important issues,” said Pawlenty adviser Brian McClung.
The ad is based partly on a newspaper opinion piece Johnson wrote years ago commending DFL Gov. Mark Dayton for seeking a tax code rewrite. It would have made more purchases and services subject to the sales tax while lowering the rate. Johnson wrote it was a “wise” change but stopped short of endorsing the full package.
The other charges relate to actions Johnson took during a decade on the Hennepin County board.
Johnson says Pawlenty is the one who backed new revenue and spending as governor, including subsidies for the Twins ballpark and a tobacco surcharge that Pawlenty called the health impact fee.
“Tim campaigned as a rock-ribbed conservative and then governed as a moderate. And I think that’s frustrating to a lot of Republicans.”
Pawlenty left office in 2011 after opting against a bid for a third term. Following an ill-fated run for president, he took a job leading the Washington-based Financial Services Roundtable and served on several corporate boards.
The two have yet to appear jointly in a forum open to the public or news coverage. They are scheduled for a private event next week at the Minnesota Business Partnership. There are two public forums on the docket for early August. The primary is Aug. 14.
The winner of the Johnson-Pawlenty race will face the victor of a three-way Democratic primary, along with several third-party candidates who have qualified for November's ballot.