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Editorial: It’s uphill for Minnesota GOP in 2014

The establishment Minnesota Republican Party patted itself on the back last week when the endorsed candidate for governor won Tuesday’s primary. The self congratulations were not entirely justified, given the near-record low voter turnout and the fact that something like two-thirds of Republican primary voters voted for the other guys – the three who were not endorsed by the party machinery.

A win is a win, and Jeff Johnson will take on popular DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in the campaign leading up to the November election. But if voter enthusiasm is as important as analysts say it is, Johnson confronts a formidable challenge merely energizing Republicans.

The primary was far and away a Republican show. The fourway tilt to determine which Republican would face Dayton was the only race that was supposed to stir Republican voter interest. DFL voters did not need to stir, yet they came out in far greater numbers than registered Republican voters. So when less than 10 percent of all registered voters bothered to vote – and most of them were Democrats when the marque race was to anoint a Republican governor candidate – the problem is obvious. GOP enthusiasm – what pollsters call the intensity factor – was absent.

It could be the primary malaise was a reflection of several Republican missteps. A couple of years ago, the party of fi scal responsibility had to deal with internal fi scal mismanagement that resulted in an embarrassing housecleaning. It also might be that fatigue set in with Gov. Tim (“I’m running for president”) Pawlenty. After winning control of the Legislature, Republicans squandered opportunities for longterm majority status. In short order, the DFL won back both houses, and in a historic concentration of political power, owned the governor’s office as well.

Finally, in what could be seen as a repudiation of Republican ideas, Minnesotans elected, in Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, two of the most liberal Democrats in the nation. Early polls show Franken is more popular today than he was when he was elected in a contested razor-thin race six years ago against Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.

A lot could happen between now and November. To be sure, Jeff Johnson will run a vigorous campaign against Dayton. The three losers in Tuesday’s primary will line up behind the winner because that’s what loyal Republicans are expected to do. Enthusiasm and intensity, however, will make or break GOP campaigns. Recent political history and the primary suggest those factors are in short supply.