The DFL and Republican candidates for governor offered contrasting visions for leading the state on Wednesday, setting up a clash over what role state government plays in the lives of Minnesotans.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the former Mankato high school teacher who won the three-way DFL primary, offered an expansive view of government that would more effectively educate Minnesotans from prekindergarten to job training, expand government health insurance and pour money into infrastructure spending — with the help of a gas tax increase.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, an attorney who lives in Plymouth, shocked many Republicans with his surprise primary victory over former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He said Minnesotans would be ready for a change after eight years under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, suggesting Walz would be more of the same.
“I talk about government getting out of our lives, and he seems to believe the job of government is to help us all make better decisions about our lives,” Johnson said. While calling Walz a nice guy — “I like Tim,” Johnson said — he attacked him for liberal positions on taxes, health care, immigration enforcement and how strict regulators should be with businesses.
Asked later about Johnson’s attacks, Walz replied: “He left out the confiscating puppies.” Walz said he would govern differently than Dayton, building new coalitions like he did as a Democrat in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on issues like agriculture and veterans.
Walz said that Johnson would have to sketch out how he would make a budget balance without cutting services.
“What are you going to take away and what is your vision for what you’re saying that makes a difference in people’s lives,” Walz said. His administration, he said, would “make a difference and [Minnesotans] are going to see the value.”
Walz and Johnson have less than 12 weeks to build on the support they gained in the primaries in what is expected to be a fiercely fought election that could determine whether Republicans — who currently have majorities in the state House and Senate — take full control of state government for the first time in half a century.
Johnson, who lost the 2014 governor’s race to Dayton, also earned a coveted endorsement for a Republican candidate on Wednesday morning, when President Donald Trump tweeted his support for Johnson’s campaign.
Trump tweeted: “Jeff Johnson of Minnesota had a big night in winning the Republican nomination for governor against a very strong and well known opponent! Thanks for all of the support you showed me. You have my complete and total Endorsement. You will win in November!”
Johnson won immediate notice from Trump’s 53 million Twitter followers, and the possibility of a bundle of campaign donations that could come from it. But the endorsement is not without cost, as a recent NBC/Marist poll showed just 38 percent of Minnesotans approve of Trump’s performance as president.
Johnson said he was happy to have the support: “This is great.” He dismissed the idea of moving away from Trump now that he will face the broader electorate of Minnesotans who may not be fans of the 45th president.
“That’s what people hate most about politicians is you go from one election to the next and change your position and make people think you’re speaking to them instead of someone else,” Johnson said. “I have said from the start that I support the president. I think he’s trying to take the country in the right direction.”
Walz said the public has soured on Trump: “This is two years of Republican candidates being silent as children are being ripped from their parents’ arms,” he said, referring to the recently ended refugee child separation policy.
But Walz also pointed out that he won in his Republican-leaning congressional district in 2016 despite Trump’s big win there.
The two candidates are expected to begin debating as soon as this week, with one and potentially two debates Friday and another this weekend.
Johnson said he hopes for a spirited campaign that is about issues.
“I actually think this might be a great campaign because we have very different visions for the future of Minnesota,” Johnson said.