Do Minnesota Republicans Want To Win? This Cycle, The Answer Is Yes

Finally, republicans understand that in order to have a shot at winning, they have to fight fire with fire.

Minnesota is surrounded by states that are governed by Republicans. The DFL here isn’t that much better than the Democrats in North & South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The harsh reality is that Minnesota Republicans have gotten pretty bad at their jobs: winning office and governing conservatively.

Instead we have an establishment that’s content with small gains and holding secure, largely inconsequential political offices. The perks, not the substance or, God forbid, effectiveness of the office, is the draw for them. They want to be liked by the Left and are intimidated by the mediaocrities™ in our local press. Consequently we fall short in election after election, including wave elections in 2010 where we couldn’t beat a poor candidate like Mark Dayton. Please clap.

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This cycle something seems different and that difference is that several of our candidates in high profile races appear to actually want to win and are doing what it takes to succeed. This is new. Usually, and speaking quite broadly, Minnesota Republicans are happy to get jobs on losing campaigns because at least the same, relatively untalented people, will make money. They then move on to other losing campaigns or into swamps like the House.

Doug Wardlow exhibits most strongly this overdue demonstration of wanting to win and not being afraid of doing what it takes to do so. He’s been on the outside of the cool kids’ club and, frankly, isn’t especially liked by the state Republican establishment. Fortunately, he’s returned the favor.

This is most notably shown in his decision about how to run against the loathsome Keith Ellison: take the fight to him by telling the truth about him. The milquetoast types who make a living in Republican politics all counseled him to make his campaign about what a nice guy Doug is. Don’t take any chances! Don’t throw any punches! This isn’t advice given by those who want you to win and those people don’t. Just look at the lack of support from the Pawlenty swamp, still pouting after being comprehensively rejected: they’ve effectively abandoned Jeff Johnson because their guy didn’t win. For them, a Democrat winning is preferable to the “wrong kind” of Republican winning.

Wardlow is having none of it and Sunday evening turned in a debate performance the likes of which we have never seen from a Republican candidate for statewide office. He launched a full throated attack on Ellison from the first minute and never once let up. He countered every pushback from Ellison with cold facts and an insistence on the truth. He talked over Keith as frequently as Keith did him. It was relentless, it was brutal and it was masterfully effective. Ellison was destroyed by a candidate who wasn’t afraid to win. Democrats are used to our wimps, our timid types who thrive only in hot house environments like Chamber breakfasts or other safe, cloistered gatherings.

Last night polling released by the Star Tribune/MPR showed Wardlow ahead of Ellison, 43% to 36% with 16% undecided (spoiler: those will break for Wardlow). Wardlow’s improved position represents a 12 point swing from when the race was last polled. Hey Doug & Billy Grant: you’re not quite there yet but consider yourselves vindicated.

Wardlow broke the losing mold perfected by the Dumbest Republicans in the Nation™ and with luck nothing will be the same again in Minnesota politics.

Similarly, Karin Housley has taken the fight to that cipher, the cold & distant Tina Smith, the Nurse Ratched of this race, in ways I didn’t expect but which I cheer. Housley wants to win and you can feel it. I expect voters can as well.

Her most recent ad is a study in understated deadliness: no voice-over barking at you, rather only the sound of the ocean as a couple in beach chairs clink champagne glasses while words appear with the effect of lashes on bare skin.

Inexplicably, Smith was a no show to the KSTP statewide televised debate and Housley had the amazing optics of standing next to an empty podium. Kudos to KSTP for going through with the debate and not letting Smith, as the station put, exercise a veto over Minnesota voters from hearing from at least one candidate.

I said on Twitter that it was difficult to think how Housley could have turned in a better performance. Strong and forceful on policy and issues, personally engaging and pleasant on a personal level, Karin brought her proverbial A game and it showed.

Jeff Johnson has upped his game recently and I’m relieved, frankly. For the last several weeks it seemed as though his campaign had stalled, not noticeably bad but lacking what I call the desire to win. I only watch like you: I’m not on any of the campaigns I write about. But something changed and that was on display Sunday night.

Johnson gave the best debate performance of his career against Tim Walz, who seemed oddly plodding and rote. Johnson crisply set out real differences between the two candidates in ways that were effective and strong. He repeatedly answered the questions put to him while noting that Walz avoided them. Over time, a lack of honesty attached itself to Walz, the result of Johnson’s continuous, deft framing of the issues.

At his rally and fundraiser with Marco Rubio last night, Johnson said “Tim Walz loves to talk about One Minnesota. He wants One California folks. Actually, he wants One Venezuela.” That’s it, Jeff! Stay with this theme for the next two weeks. A cold California: a sanctuary state with sanctuary cities that resemble open sewers. Throw in the gas tax and you can win. But you have to go there: don’t stop using the California analogy.

I hope Johnson continues to close strongly. He needs to, although I’ve always thought this race was closer than public polling would suggest. The same is true of Karin Housley in her race against the Accidental Senator. I’ve never thought Keith Ellison was ahead in the race for Attorney General and I predict Doug Wardlow will win easily.

These three candidates are all very different from each other, as are the offices they seek. The strategy and tactics in each race must be based on the particulars of that contest, their opponents, fundraising and other factors. This is obvious, this is common sense.

But they each share something this cycle I have never seen in more than a decade of paying attention: an unapologetic desire to win coupled with techniques and approaches that our candidates are usually talked out of by our stale consultant class. In fact, the Democrats depend on our candidates not being bold, not throwing punches, not wanting to win enough to make a difference in the actual campaign.

When we act like Democrats, when we campaign using strategies, tactics and styles that they do, we do well. Doug Wardlow, Karin Housley and Jeff Johnson are showing in real time a new style of Republican politics, one that is painfully overdue and a delight to behold.

The election is two weeks from today. There’s no guarantee that one or more of them will win but in the race to the finish line we can be grateful that they are unabashed in their desire to place first.

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In addition to Alpha News, John Gilmore is also a contributor to The Hill. He is the founder and executive director of Minnesota Media Monitor.™ He blogs at and is on Twitter under @Shabbosgoy. He can be reached at Wbua@nycunarjfza.pbz

John Gilmore

John Gilmore is an author, freelance writer & former opinion columnist for Alpha News. He blogs at & is @Shabbosgoy on Twitter