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Capitol Chatter: Has governor’s race turned to Minnesota nasty?

By Don Davis


The heat at Wednesday night’s Minnesota governor candidates’ debate was obvious from the moderator’s chair and across the state.

From the best seat in the house, a few feet from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson, the question immediately arose: What ever happened to that Minnesota nice attitude the pair brought into the campaign? The two looked at each other, lobbing and returning charges time and again (and a time or two agreeing on an issue).

It was a sign of things to come.

A day after the debate, Johnson launched a television commercial saying the incumbent approved bills “not even knowing what is in the bills he has signed.”

The ad, which likely will air a lot in the campaign’s final weeks, criticizes Dayton for putting money into a Vikings stadium while not knowing the team will get much of the money it contributes by selling seat licenses. It tells Minnesotans that he signed a bill taxing farm implement repair, apparently not knowing it was in the bill. It blames him for giving bonuses to officials of MNsure, the state’s online health insurance sales service, although he actually opposed them.

A sound clip of Dayton saying “I was not aware at all” plays in the background during the middle of the spot, and later the announcer asks: “What is Mark Dayton aware of?”

The Dayton campaign called the ad desperate.

With Johnson trailing in the public polls, it was no surprise to see him go on the offensive during the Forum News Service debate in Moorhead. But what surprised some observers is that Dayton was equally aggressive.

While no one likes to be attacked, as Dayton has been lately, those looking at his debate performance through political lenses wondered if his inside information matches what Johnson has been saying: The race is going to get closer before the Nov. 4 election.

Both candidates have been considered nice guys, and many had not expected the bitter exchanges that have been seen in the race lately.

took the unusual step of buying time to run a full debate on television.

McFadden paid a Twin Cities television station $5,000 to air an Oct. 1 debate between him and Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken. The debate was in Duluth, sponsored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the Duluth News Tribune.

The debate was the first of three planned for the general election campaign, and the only of the three to be in greater Minnesota.

Reviews of the debate indicate that McFadden was aggressive, while Franken was more subdued.

In an email to supporters, a McFadden campaign official said: “We are so pleased with Mike’s performance, we wanted to make sure that more Minnesotans could see it.”

Nolan gets the money

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan made the cut.

House Democrats decided the northeastern Minnesotan is one of four incumbents they will concentrate on saving. Money from Democratic challengers was shifted so Nolan and three others could get more financial aid.

Nolan faces a stiff challenge by Republican newcomer Stewart Mills of the Mills Fleet Farm family.

New gas tax?

Dayton’s comments about the possibility of putting a sales tax on gasoline confused some people and gave Johnson’s campaign a chance to attack him.

At the Wednesday night governor debate, Dayton and other candidates were asked for specific proposals they plan if elected on Nov. 4. Dayton said he would suggest taxing gasoline based on its cost, like many other products, instead of per gallon.

However, he also told the Moorhead audience that he is “not wedded” to any specific way to fund the state’s transportation needs.

A month ago, Dayton told Forum News Service that he wants to consider a variety of options and was not ready to settle on one. The day after the debate, Dayton tried to clarify his Moorhead remarks by saying he remains open to other proposals and may not have been clear when he was asked about specific plans.

Johnson’s campaign issued a statement saying that Dayton was reversing his position, adding that “the incompetence of Gov. Mark Dayton is breathtaking.”

Davis covers Minnesota government and politics for Forum News Service. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @CapitolChatter.

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.