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Tim Pugmire, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published October 25 2013

Minnesota GOP straw poll to test early strength of Dayton challengers

ST. PAUL – Republicans hoping to challenge Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014 are about to find out how they stack up in the eyes of party insiders.

GOP delegates will meet Saturday to vote their early preferences for governor and U.S. Senate in a non-binding straw poll. The poll is imperfect – many past winners did not end up as the party nominee. GOP leaders, though, still see it as an important test for candidates and their messages.

“It’s valuable right now, and I think it’s an early barometer,” said Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey. It will help party activists understand the candidates’ early support, he added, and the public will get to see “where the candidates stand at this early stage.”

The five announced candidates for governor have so far hit similar themes on taxes, jobs and education. They boast strong conservative credentials, claim that Minnesota is hurting under DFL leadership and believe they’re the best pick to take on Dayton, a Democrat.

Rob Farnsworth, a special education teacher from Hibbing, hasn’t held an elected public office and isn’t as well-known as some of the other candidates, but he thinks his lack of political baggage makes him more electable.

“Money isn’t necessarily going to do it, and experience in the Legislature isn’t necessarily going to do it,” Farnsworth said. “It’s got to be a candidate that can expand the vote for governor from that 45 percent range that we’ve had in the last three elections, to over 50 percent.”

Scott Honour is also highlighting his lack of political experience, arguing the skills acquired from a long business career would serve him well as governor.

“We need someone that knows how to measure where we are today, set a plan for what results we want to achieve and then measure and report those results,” Honour said. “That’s exactly what I’ve done in my business career. While business is not government, I think there are a lot of parallels.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson is a familiar face among GOP regulars, having served the past two and a half years as national committeeman. Johnson, a former three-term state legislator, said he’ll urge delegates to be smart about their selection, someone who can connect with Minnesotans beyond the party “and not just necessarily pick the person who can throw out the red meat or maybe has the most money.”

Johnson wears his record with pride, but so do others.

State Sen. Dave Thompson, a former radio talk-show host first elected in 2010, said his resume is well-rounded with both private and public sector experience.

“I hope that I am viewed as somebody who will always stick to principle. But I understand that not everything is a matter of principle,” Thompson said “We also have to get the work of the people done, and I’ve tried to do that by reaching across the aisle, and in some cases standing up against the leadership of my own party when I felt it necessary.”

Six-term state Rep. Kurt Zellers might be the most widely known GOP candidate. He was speaker of the House in 2011 and 2012 when Republicans were last in charge. Zellers said he has the leadership and campaign experience that distinguishes him from the others.

“From an electability standpoint, do people recognize the name? Do people know you from the campaign trail? That makes a big difference when it comes next fall,” Zellers said. “They want to have somebody with a proven track record who can win statewide.”

Besides the five names on the straw poll ballot at the meeting today in Blaine, delegates will have a write-in option. One write-in campaign is underway for former state Rep. Marty Seifert.

The support of Republican Party insiders might be less of a factor in 2014, with a primary election looming. Only Johnson and Thompson have said they’ll drop out if they do not win the party’s endorsement next year.