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Minnesota GOP governor candidates come with differences

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson arrives at a Mankato Mnnesota governor candidate forum. Like other forums, he was the lone Republican attending before the Aug. 14, 2018, primary election. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 6
The media surrounds former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in June 2018 after he filled out paperwork to run for the office again. He will face Jeff Johnson ini the Aug. 14, 2018, goveror primary election. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 6
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty greets Angela Erhard, left, Eden Prairie, and Ruby Kubista, Eagan, before he speaks to the media and answers questions at Hovie's Grill in Eagan on Friday, April 6, 2018. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press3 / 6
Speakng to an audience interested in agriculture, Jeff Johnson answers a question during a Nov.9, 2017, forum. He faces former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in an Aug. 14, 2018, primary election. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 6
Jeff Johnson announces his second run for goveronr in 2017. He faces former Gov. Tim Pawlenty in an Aug. 14, 2018, primary election. Don Davis / Forum News Service5 / 6
Tim Pawlenty, Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, stopped briefly at Monaco Air in Duluth for a press conference June 4, 2018. He faces Jeff Johnson in the Aug. 14, 2018, primary election. Bob King / Forum News Service6 / 6

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Republicans should know something about their two major governor candidates in the Aug. 14 primary election.

Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty each has been on the statewide ballot twice.

Both say they are conservatives and agree on several issues, such as tamping down the budget and changing taxes.

But they are different in other areas. Pawlenty's eight years as governor gives him higher name recognition than Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner who lost statewide races for attorney general in 2006 and governor in 2014. And Pawlenty's national connections helped him raise more than $2 million for his campaign this year, compared to $313,00 for Johnson.

Those factors lead some to give Pawlenty a big edge in the primary election, which will determine who will represent the GOP on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Johnson is not one of them.

"Certainly, going in I suspect we were behind, maybe by a lot," Johnson said of Pawlenty's entrance into the race earlier this year. "I feel very confident we are chipping away."

He points to his advantage of running for almost a year and the Republican Party state convention endorsing him in early June.

As for the money, Johnson added, "I will spend what we need to spend, but it will be a fraction" of what Pawlenty has available.

Johnson, a labor lawyer and Detroit Lakes native, said he has seen anger among some Republican voters about Pawlenty's late entry into the race and avoiding even competing for the state party endorsement.

The former governor, who served 2003 to 2011, said he is not taking the primary for granted.

"We are experienced enough and humble enough to know that anything can happen in politics, and it often does," Pawlenty said.

And he said something many political observers have been saying: "Primaries are low-turnout events, they are volatile, they are hard to predict."

While Pawlenty began running for president at the end of his second term as governor, he said that is not on the horizon now.

"I am in a phase of my career that I don't have any more ambitions," Pawlenty said in a Forum News Service interview. "I don't need the office, I already have been there. I don't need the title, I already have it. I am running for one reason: that is to do good things for the state that I love."

Pawlenty, 57 and a South St. Paul native, said that without further political ambitions, he is fee to "be myself, say what I want to say."

Johnson, 51, said he is running for the same reasons he challenged Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton four years ago: to make state agencies more accountable and to make sure state workers understand their jobs are to serve the public.

"The biggest difference in this race, frankly, is it is an open seat," Johnson added.

Historically, it is difficult to unseat a governor. Dayton is not running again, and three major Democratic candidates are competing in the primary campaign.

The candidates both want to limit state spending.

Pawlenty said the state budget has declined only once in decades, when he was governor. When he left office, the state spent $30 billion in two years; the current budget calls for $46 billion in spending.

Johnson said the budget cannot keep rising, adding that Republicans too often agree to a moderate increase but claim victory because it did not rise more. "We have to cut spending. It is irresponsible for Republicans to say they are going to cut all these taxes and then increase spending."

Neither candidate was ready to discuss detailed spending and tax plans.

Johnson said that he would concentrate on lowering the lowest tier of the income tax, calling it "totally out of balance" with other states. He said Minnesota does not tax the rich too much, but it does the poor.

He also would look at lowering license plate fees because "it hits average people real hard."

Both want to get rid of state income taxes on Social Security benefits, and would be willing to phase it out if legislators would not vote to eliminate it immediately.

Pawlenty would not give details, but said he will release a comprehensive tax-reform package later in the campaign. He said that dropping the Social Security tax would "disproportionately help disadvantaged Minnesotans" and he would concentrate on giving tax relief to the middle class.

Pawlenty said that he did not want to "sandpaper down the rates," but will propose a major tax reform package.

The former governor said tax reform is one of three major planks in his campaign. The other two are making education more accountable and reducing "runaway" health care costs.

Johnson said he is trying to respond to topics he often hears around the state: health care costs, education, immigration and taxes.

Also on the Republican ballot is little-known Matt Kruse of Mankato.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.