ST. PAUL, Minn. - Democrat Mark Dayton overcame a Republican electoral tide to narrowly win the Minnesota governor's office in 2010. He doesn't expect any easier time when defending his job this fall.
Dayton hopes voters reward him for an improving state economy, a shrinking unemployment rate and jobs projects won with help of government subsidies. It's the first time the former U.S. senator and state auditor has even tried for re-election, which contributes to whispers of doubt about his commitment to see another campaign through.
He deflects such talk by noting he raised $1 million last year, in part from more than 30 fundraisers in recent months. That's notable for a candidate who resorted largely to personal wealth in past campaigns - $25 million over his political career.
"I'm not going to walk away from this. There's too much at stake and there's too much progress that we've made in terms of education and jobs," Dayton, who turns 67 in a few weeks, said in a late December interview with The Associated Press. "We're not there yet. There's more we need to do."
Republicans eager to oust Dayton highlight his support for a health care overhaul fraught with problems; for $2.1 billion in tax increases; and for a wobbly Vikings stadium funding plan that had to be reworked within a year. The GOP won't settle on a nominee until August, with a primary fight possible.
Since statehood, only seven Minnesota governors seeking re-election have lost, including Democrat Rudy Perpich twice after nonconsecutive terms. Dayton was a Perpich disciple, having served in his cabinet.
The Upper Midwest has become fertile ground for Republicans - every neighboring state is led by one - but Minnesota has skewed in the other direction. Democrats have won 13 of the 14 statewide contests here since 2004, everything from auditor to senator to the presidency.
"This is going to be an uphill battle all the way," said state Rep. Kurt Zellers, one of seven Republicans angling to face Dayton. "He's proven he can win statewide."
Dayton won the governor's office by fewer than 9,000 votes in an election that spilled into a recount.
His first two years saw frequent skirmishes with Republican legislative majorities. A budget standoff resulted in a nearly three-week government shutdown and ended with him temporarily giving up on a push for new taxes on the rich, Dayton's signature campaign promise.
But voters elected Democratic House and Senate majorities in 2012. The new taxes Dayton sought on the wealthy became law - as did higher cigarette taxes and new charges on some business services. Gay couples were given the right to marry, a turnabout from an effort to ban same-sex marriage the year before. Unions won a chance to organize in home day care centers and among home health care workers, though that law is tied up in court.
A $6.2 billion projected deficit greeted Dayton as he took office. This year, he and lawmakers will be working with an $825 million projected surplus and no longer have a pile of IOUs to schools hanging over them.
When Dayton came in, the state had a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 7 percent. It's now at 4.6 percent, although state officials note that high levels of "temporary help" positions and labor force dropouts are factors.
According to an administration tally, 350 businesses have moved jobs into Minnesota or expanded their presence in his term. The state will invest heavily in a Mayo Clinic plan to more than double its footprint in the state over the next 20 years, and will assist in a huge Mall of America expansion. Several other companies large and small will grow using tax breaks and grants from beefed-up economic development accounts.
Dayton is honing a message that government can have a role in stoking the private economy. "It's the difference between my view and the prevailing Republican view that is that government should have hands-off everything," he said.
Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County official also seeking the GOP nod, agreed the fall campaign will come down to the big-picture approach to government. He argues Dayton is misreading the public appetite.
"His vision for the state is all based on government. How do we get more money into government? How do we make government more powerful or have more influence on people's lives?" Johnson said. "My focus is how do you empower individuals and give them more choices and options?"
Republicans plan to frame some of Dayton's projects as ill-advised giveaways. Among them is a Vikings stadium plan - passed when the GOP was at the legislative helm - that relies on roughly $500 million in taxpayer money. A bid to use a new form of electronic gambling to help pay the state's share was a failure, prompting lawmakers to divert other tax dollars to the project.
State Sen. Dave Thompson, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, said the stadium deal and Dayton's decision to implement every part of the federal health care law would come back to haunt him.
"This governor, through his commissioners, promised us that this stadium funding thing would work out. It didn't," Thompson said. "He promised us that MNsure would increase the availability of quality health care and health insurance in this state. It hasn't."
Dayton has a luxury his GOP rivals don't: He can devote all of his money and attention on the general-election matchup while they maneuver to take him on.
Johnson and Thompson have pinned their campaigns on winning the GOP endorsement at a mid-May state convention, pledging to drop out if someone else wins. Others are leaving the door open or focusing mainly on the summer primary. They include Zellers, former state Rep. Marty Seifert, businessman Scott Honour, teacher Rob Farnsworth and utility worker Richard Klatte.
They'll get an early gauge of support when party activists head to precinct caucuses on Feb. 4, which traditionally includes a preference poll on top races.
No candidates have emerged yet to pursue the Independence Party nomination. The IP, a major party under Minnesota's election law, has fetched more votes than the margin of victory in the past few governor races.
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