Timothy J. Walz, a Democrat from Mankato, will be the 41st governor of Minnesota after defeating Republican Jeff Johnson in Tuesday’s election.
“Hello, one Minnesota!” Walz, a congressman from southern Minnesota who served 24 years in the National Guard and worked as a high school teacher and coach, proclaimed in his victory speech. “Our democracy is strong tonight.”
The victory by Walz, 54, gives Democrats four more years in the governor’s office following two terms by Gov. Mark Dayton. With Democrats also winning a majority in the state House in Tuesday’s election, the party is poised to expand its power at the State Capitol. Walz, who ran as a uniter, will also have to contend with Republicans, who maintained their one-vote state Senate majority by winning a special election.
Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, was making his second run for the governor’s job after losing to Dayton four years ago. In his concession speech, he matched the civil tone of his campaign.
“I gave Tim Walz a call a few minutes ago to congratulate him for his victory and I told him, and I meant it, that I don’t just wish him luck, but I wish him success,” Johnson said. “Because I want to retire in this state, and I want to raise grandchildren in this state.”
Walz’s victory also made state history, as he noted in his victory speech.
“Since 1789, no indigenous woman in this nation’s history had ever been elected into the executive office — until tonight,” Walz said, in reference to his running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan. She is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Voters interviewed Tuesday by the Star Tribune said they connected with Walz’s life story, which includes 24 years in the National Guard and more than 20 years teaching and coaching high school before he was elected to Congress in 2006.
Mary Knapp, an independent voter from Golden Valley, said she voted for both Democrats and Republicans but went for Walz in the governor’s race. Knapp, 61, called him “more grounded and I think really concerned about the best interests of everyone instead of being particularly partisan.”
Walz campaigned for the job for more than a year and a half, working to win over more liberal Democratic voters while keeping his appeal with more moderate, greater Minnesota party members who have made up his political base as a congressman.
The two candidates spent the campaign laying out vastly different visions for Minnesota’s future.
While Johnson vowed to cut taxes and loosen regulations on business, Walz advocated more spending on education, transportation, aid to local governments and other programs. Walz, whose congressional district is more rural and conservative than the state as a whole, pledged to bring together disparate groups to make progress after years of gridlock in St. Paul.
The stakes of the campaign were big. Walz will be in office during the 2020 census and redistricting, when lawmakers and the governor will have to decide on new legislative and congressional districts that will reshape Minnesota politics and government for the coming decade.
The campaign hewed to standards of “Minnesota nice” but also featured sharp attacks on health care. Johnson attacked Walz for saying Minnesota and the United States should move to a single payer health care system like Medicare, charging that Walz’s plan would lead to fewer choices, long wait times and worse health care.
But the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a Democratic-aligned group, spent more than $4 million attacking Johnson with TV ads that argued Johnson’s health care agenda would mean vulnerable Minnesotans would lose coverage. He called the ads inaccurate and unfair.
James Schmidt, 19, who was voting in Chanhassen, said he tuned in closely to the race for governor; he voted for Johnson. He liked what Johnson had to say about immigration.
“I do like that rhetoric,” Schmidt said, saying he’d like tougher laws. “I think stronger immigration laws get me a little more hyped up to vote.”
But Walz’s message of unity carried the day. Walz led the entire way in all the public polling, and raised far more campaign cash than Johnson.
Daniel Fehrenkamp, 39, owner of Iron Door Pub in Minneapolis, had voted as a Democrat since he was 18. He said he supported Walz because he believes he understands the diverse needs of rural and urban residents. Fehrenkamp lived in Rochester, which Walz represented in Congress.
“Walz is a veteran and teacher, and I have a lot of respect for that,” he said.
Walz reiterated his campaign theme during his victory speech: “We in Minnesota know we can bridge those gaps and create one Minnesota.”
He reached out to the business community that normally backs Republicans: “If you run a business and you want to work together to reduce health care costs, build affordable housing and make a difference in your community, I will be there as your governor to make that happen,” he said.
Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, said Walz would bring fresh energy to a State Capitol that in recent years has been beset with partisan rancor. Last year, the Legislature sued Gov. Mark Dayton when he vetoed money for their salaries.
“A Gov. Walz will be someone totally new to the Capitol, and there’ll be high interest in him, and his personality will be well-suited,” Cohen said.
Walz is known for his gregarious personality, an easy fit for the backslapping environs of the military, practice field and political campaign.
But Walz still faces a challenging environment. Republicans drove a hard bargain with Dayton and stymied some of the most significant policy proposals of his second term, like a gas tax increase, universal prekindergarten and expansion of a public health insurance program called MinnesotaCare.
Walz has also proposed those policies, and it’s not clear if Republicans would be any more willing to bend to Walz than they were with Dayton.
Walz did craft a few deals with Republicans in Congress, but on two relatively uncontroversial issues: care of veterans and agriculture. As governor, Walz steps into a very different role than a member of Congress.
Walz will take over a government with more than 30,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $22 billion.
And he will face immediate challenges.
The state tax system has grown wildly divergent from the federal tax code, creating a confusing situation for families and businesses next year. Cleaning up the mess will be a first order of business.
Lawmakers were forced to subsidize the individual health insurance market last year with more than $540 million, just to stabilize it. There’s no ongoing funding for the program. And a significant source of funding for health care initiatives through a tax on medical providers is scheduled to expire at the end of 2019.
State government’s technology systems have repeatedly failed in recent years, affecting the state’s driver’s license and registration systems, for instance.
Multiple governors have tried and failed to confront the long-standing problem of children of color not performing as well in schools as white children, leaving many unprepared for college or the workforce.
But Walz will take the helm with resources to tackle some these problems, as the state budget outlook is currently bullish and has been in surplus for several years running.
“We know there are challenges ahead,” Walz acknowledged. “But Minnesota has always risen to the occasion.”