A Hill too high to climb
MARSHALL – Can a rural Minnesota candidate with a permanent home closer to the South Dakota border than to the state Capitol win a major statewide election?
It seems that question has been answered yet again.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert said he and his campaign did everything in their power to capture Tuesday’s primary, but a third-place finish is all they have to show for it – despite a tireless campaign across the state.
Seifert’s numbers in southwest Minnesota were impressive, but the former Marshall High School teacher didn’t overwhelm in other rural counties like he had hoped.
“We did everything humanly possible to scurry up the votes, and we’re a bit stunned about how some of the rural counties turned out,” said Seifert, who came in third in the four-man race to determine Gov. Mark Dayton’s challenger this fall. “For people who say rural Minnesota gets left behind, they had their shot to nominate someone from there, but they decided to go with a different candidate. We have to respect the voters’ decision. They made their choice.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson secured the GOP slot, garnering 30 percent of the vote Tuesday. Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers was second with 23 percent, with Seifert coming in at 21 percent, just ahead of businessman Scott Honour (20 percent).
Seifert, who lost his 2010 bid to run for governor to Tom Emmer, said funding proved to be a roadblock to his success this year. He admits he struggled with fundraising but said other candidates did also.
“The funding just wasn’t there; we weren’t on TV that much, didn’t have a huge media presence,” he said. “That does make a difference.”
“He didn’t have the money to do significant paid media,” said David Sturrock, political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State University. “For a race like this, over-the-air TV and significant direct mailing is important.”
Sturrock said while Seifert didn’t have the funding source to draw from that some other candidates did, money in the bank doesn’t guarantee anything.
“Scott Honour spent the most money and look where he finished – behind Marty,” Sturrock said. “Money doesn’t buy you automatic success. We’ve seen a lot of cases like that, and Scott’s the most recent.”
Instead of hitting the airwaves – he had one TV ad air early in the campaign – Seifert used mainly newspapers and radio – rural newspapers and radio – to spread his message and make his mark on the voters. He toured all 87 counties and was confident he left a strong impression wherever he went.
“In the rural counties, we felt we would do better than we did,” he said, “but it just didn’t come out as well as we had expected. Locally, we couldn’t ask for any more support; we’re ecstatic about the support from the southwest part of the state.”
Seifert indeed enjoyed a strong support base in southwest Minnesota. Republican support for the Marshall resident was just over 95 percent in Lyon County, just over 94 percent in Redwood County and strong in Yellow Medicine County as well.
Johnson carried seven of eight congressional districts, the exception being CD 7 – Seifert’s turf. Seifert garnered 40 percent of the vote in CD 7 and ran second to the south in CD 1 with 29 percent.
“I doubt there has been a serious statewide primary where you’ve seen almost a unanimous level of support for a candidate,” said Sturrock. “Ninety-five percent in Lyon and Redwood, 85 percent in Yellow Medicine – that’s probably unprecedented in a serious statewide primary.
“He got a very positive endorsement from those who know him best.”
But, Sturrock said, although Seifert won his share of rural counties, he didn’t dominate them, and that’s what he would’ve needed to do to overcome the endorsed candidate Johnson and his strong showing in the state’s largest county and his home base: Hennepin County. There, Johnson grabbed almost 37 percent of the vote, compared to Seifert’s 11 percent. Seifert also lamented the results in Stearns County where he thought he would do very well. He carried the county but not in game-changing fashion. He won by a fraction over Zellers and by just one percentage point over Johnson.
“It’s one thing to carry a county, but you’ve got to carry them with votes to spare,” said Sturrock. “He didn’t do enough of that.”
In the metro, Seifert figured he would’ve needed to carry about 18 to 20 percent of the vote to hang with Johnson. He estimates he got 14 percent.
“He needed to get his share in the metro, and that share had to be in the upper 20s (percent),” Sturrock said. “To win, he would’ve needed more than the conservative 19 percent there.”
Primary turnout increased in the region compared to 2010, with an average increase of 271 percent. Statewide, Republican turnout was up 41 percent compared to 2010 and 48 percent compared to 2012, Sturrock said.
Seifert, like his GOP rivals, have thrown their support behind Johnson now. And he said he’s ready to return to Marshall to run his rental property business.
“Win or lose, we were going to be in Marshall, we knew that the whole time,” Seifert said.