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Debate shows sharp candidate differences

Minnesota governor candidate Hannah Nicollet talks to Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and Jeff Johnson Oct. 1 as they prepare to debate in Rochester. (Don Davis / Forum News Service)

By Don Davis


Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief challenger took health insurance cost information the administration released Wednesday and used it hours later against the governor during their first debate.

Republican Jeff Johnson said MNsure and new federal health laws have hurt the state’s insurance system, which he said had been best in the country.

Turning to Dayton, Johnson said, “You wanted to be the first in the country to implement MNsure. ... It is hurting people.”

“We have people with babies who can’t get their babies insurance for months,” he said.

Dayton said that Wednesday’s news about MNsure, which gives Minnesotans an online place to buy insurance, was good: “For the second year in a row, Minnesota will have the lowest insurance exchange rates in the country.”

MNsure has helped bring the Minnesota uninsured rate down 40 percent, the Democratic governor said, the second lowest in the country. The 4.5 percent premium increase is the lowest of rates announced in any state, he said.

Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet said that since federal law requires much of what MNsure does, the controversial program needs to remain open. However, she added, “it is going to be difficult.”

Like Republicans often do, she complained about problems setting up MNsure and its operations once it was running. “We probably will have to fix it as long as there is a federal mandate.”

Dayton, Johnson and Nicollet showed plenty of differences in the Rochester debate. And as the debate ended, Johnson showed a bit of fire.

“It has been kind of disappointing to watch some of the mistruths, the lies, that you and some of you supporters have had on TV,” Johnson told Dayton.

Commercials that say as a state representative Johnson voted against raising the minimum wage and to cut education funding were among things Johnson denied.

Dayton plugged an improved state economy since he took office in 2011, trumpeting the elimination of a $6.2 billion debt and repaying schools more than $2 billion the state borrowed from them.

In the next four years, he added, “I don’t see raising anybody’s taxes” after upping taxes on the rich and smokers in his first term.

Johnson, however, said Minnesota’s private job performance is the Midwest’s worse, which he blamed on high taxes.

Nicollet said she would get rid of the state corporate income tax to help businesses add jobs.

She frequently criticized state officials for helping fund a new Vikings football stadium.

The debate, in front of about 500 people at the Mayo Civic Center, was the first of five bringing together Dayton and Johnson. It was sponsored by the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

The next debate, sponsored by Forum News Service, is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8 in Hanson Theatre on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus.

Suggested questions for the Moorhead debate may be emailed to It will be a 90-minute event that is open free to the public. A live feed will be on the Park Rapids Enterprise website,

Polls thus far this campaign season show software developer Nicollet, 40, and other third-party candidates with very little support, but up to 20 percent of voters undecided. She has not been invited to any of the four remaining debates.

Dayton, 67, is making his first attempt at re-election after serving a single term as state auditor and U.S. senator. He has been leading in polls, in most cases by single digits. Dayton has run for other offices unsuccessfully. He comes from the family that started Dayton department stores and Target.

Johnson, 47, is a Hennepin County commissioner, former state representative and a lawyer. Republicans say that unlike Dayton and running mate Tina Smith, both urban Twin Cities residents, Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and attended Concordia College in Moorhead and he picked a running mate, Bill Kuisle, who farms outside of Rochester.

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.