By Thom Little, Ph.D.
I found a dinosaur- or at least something that I thought had become as extinct as the dinosaur: a high profile, competitive statewide campaign that was about issues and not personalities. In fact, it appears that the two candidates actually liked each other and treated each other with respect and dignity. Who knew such an animal still existed?
In 2018, two-term Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton could not seek re-election due to term limits so there was an open seat for the position. After long and hard-fought primaries, the Democratic Farm Labor party (DFL) selected six-term Congressman, military veteran and former teacher Mark Walz and Republicans selected County Commissioner and former state legislator Jeff Johnson, their gubernatorial candidate in 2014, as their candidate. Johnson defeated former GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty in a contested primary to gain the 2018 nomination.
This campaign had all the markings to be a nasty and divisive race with each party having a legitimate shot at winning. First, this was a huge political year for the state with all major state offices up for grabs as well as both US Senate seats with Democrats eyeing a takeover in one or both chambers of the state legislature. Second, the debates, interviews and campaign messages revealed significant policy differences between the two gubernatorial candidates on spending, education, health care, gun control and immigration. (2018 Minnesota Election Guide) Further, many suggested to Johnson that his loss in 2014 had been at least partially due to a lack of aggressiveness on his part. Finally, Johnson had openly courted and received the endorsement of President Donald Trump, considered by many to be a politically divisive figure.
And yet, the campaign never became the kind of personal, negative name-calling affair that seems to mar all high profile races these days. On election night, Governor-elect Walz made it a point to compliment and recognize his opponent, “I want to be clear – Jeff Johnson loves this state dearly. It’s just about putting forward different visions.” This was more than just a winner “taking the high road.” While some outside groups did run negative advertisements and their own ads pointed out differences on vision and policy, neither candidate attacked the other. In fact, the candidates and staff from each campaign indicated that the two candidates actually liked each other.
According to multiple interviews, both candidates noted that while waiting to go on stage for their debates, they talked amicably and often swapped “dad-bragging” photos of their kids. Further, this seems to be an extension of their own personalities. According to colleagues in Congress, Walz was known as someone willing to reach across the aisle regardless of party or ideology and his campaign was driven by “One Minnesota,” dedicated to bridging geographic divides across the state. Likewise, while Johnson was considered by many in the Minnesota House to be a conservative firebrand, he has also come to understand the importance of working with others, noting that “to accomplish things, you have to have relationships. If you are destroying relationships, good luck!” (Republican Icons Set Him on His Path). During one of their debates, Johnson even noted that he and Walz “get along great.”
So there you have it: a real live dinosaur, a hard fought, competitive statewide campaign devoid of name calling, half truths and outright lies. Instead, it was about vision, issues and real policy differences. It can be done!
Now, for the good of your state, our country and the democracy we love, we at SLLF challenge you and the members of the caucasus you lead to go out and do the same. I know that for most of you (except Louisiana and Virginia), the next big election is almost two years away, but I also know that many of you are already thinking about it so be a dinosaur!