One More Time

They say people who fish and farm can't elect a governor anymore. Tell that to Doug Johnson

Electoral politics are another matter. For all his clout, Johnson's power is derived from his appeal to two relatively tiny constituencies--the voters from the 6th District in northeastern Minnesota, and the 42 members of the Senate DFL Caucus who have named him tax committee chair for almost two decades without a single internal challenge. Unless you count his brief, mostly forgotten bid for the U.S. Senate 20 years ago, the current race for governor is Johnson's first serious run for statewide office. Outside observers using standard measures to gauge his chances would quickly conclude he doesn't have a prayer.

Three of Johnson's opponents in the September 15 DFL primary are the sons of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Orville Freeman, a trio of beloved and storied state leaders. Johnson's fourth rival, Mark Dayton, is the wealthy heir to the state's biggest department-store chain. Even if Johnson hits his fundraising target of $500,000 (he was more than 80 percent of the way there last week), he will be outspent by everyone except possibly Mike Freeman, the DFL endorsee who can count on the political muscle of the party and organized labor.

What's more, Johnson's positions on many hot-button issues run counter to those held by a majority of DFL voters. He is opposed to abortion, gay marriage, increased gun control, and many efforts to expand environmental protections, especially around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Perhaps not surprisingly, a St. Paul Pioneer Press/KARE-TV/Minnesota Public Radio Poll released Tuesday showed Johnson running dead last among the DFL contenders, with 4 percent support among those identified as likely DFL primary voters; Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, by contrast, had 38 percent.

Terry Gydesen

Still, a number of insiders speculate that Johnson could pull off a major upset. St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial writer Doug Tice has predicted that Johnson will win the primary, and Dan Williams--Allen Quist's running mate in a bid for the GOP endorsement earlier this year--describes the senator as "the X factor" in the governor's race. "I talk to lobbyists--they have to handicap the races well in order to do their jobs properly," says Belanger, who is supporting Coleman. "They tell me Doug's got a better-than-even chance in the primary. Some Democrats tell me the same thing."

Those who bet on Johnson have some persuasive reasons. For one thing, it's hard to find anyone in politics willing to say a bad word about the man: Even people who've served opposite him at the Capitol describe him as a master planner adept at turning perceived liabilities to his advantage. A lifelong populist, he has relished his role as the underdog, juxtaposing the blue-blood political pedigree of his opponents with his blue-collar roots as "the son of Oscar Johnson, truck driver," and handing out "Doug for Guv" fishing bobbers. While the working-class conservatives most likely to support him comprise a distinct minority of likely primary voters, they could amount to a plurality after his four opponents each take a chunk out of the DFL's liberal base.

That's especially true if the Monica Lewinsky scandal causes many Democrats to stay home, and if significant numbers of Republicans choose to skip their own all-but-uncontested primary and vote for Johnson. There's been speculation that Republicans will cross over because they consider Johnson the easiest candidate for GOP endorsee Norm Coleman to defeat, or because they consider him a more trustworthy social conservative: While the St. Paul mayor, then still a Democrat, co-chaired liberal DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone's 1996 re-election campaign, Johnson pointedly declared he would use his vote to write in somebody else.

Perhaps the most common response Republicans give when asked why they might cross over is that a Johnson primary victory makes the November election a win-win proposition. At one recent campaign event, GOP attorney-general candidate Charlie Weaver headed toward Johnson's campaign booth, hugged the candidate with genuine affection, and declared that "the best thing that's happened [in this election cycle] was this guy on the ballot. A lot of people are going to cross over and vote for him, myself included."

Johnson's lack of statewide recognition may not be a fatal handicap, his boosters argue, given that 69 percent of likely voters surveyed in a Star Tribune/KMSP-TV Minnesota Poll a month ago said they might change their minds before the primary. Johnson has conserved his money for a media blitz in the last two weeks of the primary campaign. His ad man is Bill Hillsman, who produced the television spots for Wellstone's successful Senate race in 1990. The first ad Hillsman delivered for Johnson--Budweiser-style frogs croaking "Doug" "For" "Guv"--proved he'd been creatively inspired by his candidate, whom he calls "the smartest guy in the race, a guy who ranks right up there with Wellstone for his ability to think on his feet."

But crossover voters, television ads, and even the candidate's unorthodox stands on controversial issues don't fully explain why Johnson is regarded as such a latent, potent political force in this campaign. For that, you've got to harken back to Johnson's speech at FarmFest and the visceral connection it made with people who feel under siege from fat-cat Republicans and politically correct Democrats alike. Johnson may not benefit from the refracted glory of a famous name, but in places where it matters he's known to be heir to a political legacy.

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