It's already gotten ugly in Minnesota's campaign for governor -- and the two parties aren't even running against each other yet.
On Wednesday, Jeff Johnson, Hennepin County commissioner and the 2014 Republican candidate for governor, addressed and dispelled a couple ugly rumors swirling on the Republican side of the field. Johnson, in case you're out of the loop on repeatedly deleted conservative Facebook pages, has been accused on social media of two offenses: not supporting Donald Trump... and molesting a teenage boy.
He is vehemently denying both claims.
The accusations came from a Facebook account called "Never Trumpers for Jeff Johnson," which, because it was registered at Facebook.com/JeffJohnsonGovernor, looked a lot like an official campaign page. The page administrator was "Kevin G. Bennett," a "fake profile," according to Johnson, who says the same person "had several other false identities and was active in trolling my [Facebook] posts."
"Never Trumpers for Jeff Johnson" -- currently unavailable on Facebook -- was established to smear Johnson, the candidate says. The obvious inference from the page's title is that Johnson is not a fan of the Republican president. In 2015-16, Johnson ran Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio's Minnesota campaign operation, which led to a victory in the Minnesota GOP caucus; Rubio has pledged his support to Johnson's 2018 bid for governor.
Nevertheless, Johnson says this page was "falsely suggesting I either don't or didn't support [Trump]," which he calls "dishonest."
The Facebook page also allowed posters to contribute their thoughts about Jeff Johnson, like this one, which Johnson quotes verbatim:
"Jeff Johnson is a sick pervert who belongs behind bars. He groped my teenage son last year and sent him lewd pictures. Jeff is a disgusting bastard."
Johnson's campaign spent "several weeks" trying to get the page banned by Facebook -- "it was getting significant traffic and causing problems for the campaign" -- to no avail. It only finally disappeared about a week ago, then reappeared, "scrubbed of the pedophile post," before going dark again a couple days ago.
Its more recent deletion came after the identity of the source was figured out: "Kevin G. Bennett" is actually a woman, and a supporter of and paid staffer for another Republican candidate: Keith Downey, a one-time state senator from Edina and, more recently, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
Downey doesn't deny this, but does dispute the timeline. In a statement to City Pages, Downey said the "online activity occurred before the staffer was hired," and that he was not aware of the "parody page" when she was brought on.
"When I was made aware, I demanded that the page be taken down," Downey says. "And it was. I personally spoke with Jeff [Tuesday] to assure him our campaign was not ever involved."
As for the molestation allegation that had appeared on "Never Trumpers for Jeff Johnson," Downey agrees it was "shameful and unacceptable," but clarifies that it was "not a post from our staffer." Instead, it was a review comment left by another Facebook account, and Downey observes it is a "known issue with Facebook that review comments are permanent and undeletable even by page administrators."
Downey says similar "trolling tactics will be deployed against every Republican candidate" by the DFL, and his campaign "will be ready" for them.
Johnson, for his part, pledged to "save my most aggressive fire for the DFL" and "NEVER mislead you... to raise doubts about my fellow Republicans."
Johnson and Downey finished second and third, respectively, in a recent Republican Party of Minnesota straw poll, behind Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. The state party convention is scheduled for the first two days in June, leaving more than 125 days of GOP vs. GOP campaigning to go. Republicans looking to regain the governor's office will hope few are as messy as Wednesday.
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