Minnesota’s highest office is up for grabs and its race is tightening down the stretch as the state enters the final two weeks before Election Day, Nov. 6.
Democrat Tim Walz leads Republican Jeff Johnson by about 6 percentage points — Walz is garnering 45 percent to Johnson’s 39 percent in an Oct. 15-17 poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy for Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
This is down from a 9-point advantage Walz enjoyed as recently as mid-September. Crucially, 12 percent of voters declared they remain undecided.
While the Cook Political Report — an independent and nonpartisan analytical group that prognosticates on federal elections — graded the Minnesota governor’s race as leaning in Walz’s favor, Johnson sports a track record bucking the expectations of out-of-state media outlets.
Look no further than the August primaries when Johnson wrestled the GOP nomination from former two-term governor Tim Pawlenty.
This was something of a David and Goliath scenario on paper — a race between a well-known and nationally prominent former governor against a little-known county commissioner, featuring a lopsided $2.4 million to $565,000 disparity in campaign funding to boot. Caucus voters were describing Pawlenty’s nomination as an inevitability.
Many national media outlets were covering the race in terms of Pawlenty’s clout and potential for a third term, with barely a mention of his interparty rival.
Johnson would go on to trump Pawlenty with 168,502 votes (52.61 percent) to Pawlenty's 140,466 votes (43.86 percent) in the primary — a victory, Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said, fueled by Johnson’s rugged road-trip style of campaigning and his willingness to address issues and voters directly.
Johnson has not been afraid to criticize policies that, in his terms, leave Minnesota most hostile to business — evidenced, he’s said innumerable times, by high taxes and stifling regulations on everything from entrepreneurial start-ups to day care providers to fishing limits, as well as poorly monitored programs that function inefficiently.
“We have the best people in America, we have some of the best infrastructure in America, we want to have the best education system in America,” Johnson said during a debate in Nisswa. “Just imagine if we were competitive for business, what an economic boom we would see.”
This stems from leadership at the top and in the state Legislature, Johnson said in early July, but it also necessitates a culture change in every facet of government that has, up to this time, allowed agencies to lord over their constituents instead of serving them.
“Many state agencies right now — their leadership, at least — believe it's their job to control and direct and, unfortunately in some cases, bully,” Johnson said. “That requires a fundamental, generational change. … If we don’t change that attitude, we can’t change those smaller policy issues.”
Johnson has challenged Walz early and often on spending, noting at various points in the campaign that, while Walz says he’s making case-by-case judgements on expenditures, he’s largely advocated for increases across the board.
The lone conservative on the Hennepin County Board, Johnson is quick to point out his experience as a private sector lawyer and small business owner. A life largely separate from the political sphere, he said, benefits his candidacy as well as his tenures as a state lawmaker between 2001 to 2007 and his current commissioner role.
Johnson, 61, resides in Plymouth and has been married to his wife Sondi for 25 years. They have two children. He was elected as the Minnesota representative to the National Republican Committee in 2011 and he previously ran for state attorney general in 2006 and governor in 2014, losing to Gov. Mark Dayton.
During Johnson’s life, he’s tutored in homeless shelters, coached three youth sports for 12 years and has served as a Sunday school and confirmation teacher.
Eying a climate of divisiveness on Capitol Hill, in St. Paul and at dinner tables across the nation, Walz has positioned himself as a unifier — a six-term representative with a sterling record of bipartisanship and compromise in Congress, a disciple of “joyful politics,” as he likes to put it.
“I feel so hopeful about the state and there’s so much opportunity here. I think if we focus on joyful politics, we can tackle these problems. I think that drove me to (run for governor),” Walz said. “I reject this notion of a divided state — urban, rural. I reject this notion we can’t find common ground on things that impact Minnesotans.”
How else could he get elected in a district that’s backed Democratic candidates only twice in 125 years, Walz said in mid-June, and how else could he win term after term as a Democrat in a district that’s leaned red for decades and still leans red to this day?
As a moderate, Walz’s candidacy is based on a kind of pragmatism, with a bent for common-good collectivism that doesn't trample individual’s rights.
With that in mind, Walz has challenged Johnson on what he’s characterized as inflexible and unrealistic politics -- a philosophy of absolutes and unbending pledges, Walz said, that hurts Johnson’s ability to work with state agencies and lawmakers despite his promises to foster partnerships across the aisle.
“The question where we always get lost is big government versus small government,” Walz said during the Nisswa debate. “That’s the wrong question. It needs to be the right amount.”
It’s a philosophy that has carried him thus far — through a three-way primary between himself, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Rep. Erin Murphy; a convincing victory over interparty rivals after a rocky campaign during which he fired his campaign manager mid-race and trailed in the polls leading up to the Aug. 14 vote.
And, he has noted, it’s a philosophy he hopes to bring to St. Paul — a governorship in which he said he’ll work to break the gridlock in the state Legislature and make the common interests of Minnesotans paramount, whether they’re conservative, liberal, centrist or everything in between.
A longtime Mankato resident, Walz, 54, is the highest-ranked enlisted soldier in the history of the U.S. Congress and stood as the senior Democrat in the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Prior to running for Congress in 2006, he spent 20 years as a geography teacher and a football coach at Mankato West High School. He has been married to Gwen since 1994 and shares two children with her.
In addition to Walz and Johnson, Minnesota features two other parties and their respective candidates:
• Josh Welter, for the Libertarian Party.
• Chris Wright, for the Legalize Cannabis-Grassroots Party.