By Don Davis and Jackie Renzetti


Jeff Johnson and Tim Walz will be Minnesotans' choices for governor this fall.

"I think we sent a message, people want something different," Republican Jeff Johnson said shortly after 10 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 14, as vote counting wound down in the state primary election.

Johnson said he was not for the status quo, and campaigned as the most conservative governor candidate.

Johnson's opponent, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, conceded the race.

READ MORE: The candidate who didn't want to win: How voters moved Jeff Swenson to the November ballot

Pawlenty said he is done with politics. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to have served."

Attorney General Lori Swanson, finishing third, conceded at 9:30 p.m.

Also, state Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American to be elected to any state legislature, appeared about to become the first Somali-American woman in the U.S. House, representing a Minneapolis-centered district. Omar led second-place finisher former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher 48 percent to 31 percent with most of the votes counted. The district is heavily Democratic, so the winner of the primary is the likely U.S. representative.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who left the district Omar won to run for attorney general, easily beat four rivals with 50 percent with most votes counted. The primary trimmed races down to one person per party for each open office.

Ellison and Swanson gained unwanted attention in the days leading up to the vote. Both strongly denied allegations against them. Swanson was accused of pressuring state employees to work for her politically. A former Ellison girlfriend accused him of abusing her. The state's two Democratic senators won the right to be on the Nov. 6 ballot. Appointed U.S. Sen. Tina Smith beat former Republican Richard Painter, who has been a frequent critic of President Donald Trump on cable television channels. The two, with state Sen. Karin Housley on the GOP ticket, were vying for the final two years of Al Franken's term; he resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Republican state Rep. Jim Newberger defeated little-known opponents to remain in the running for a six-year Senate term.

Pawlenty was governor from 2003 to 2011, and ran for president at the end of his second term. While Johnson has been on the campaign trail 15 months and earned the party's endorsement at its state convention, Pawlenty just joined the race early this year.

Washington County results

In Washington County, about 40 percent of voters in the gubernatorial democratic primary voted for Walz and Flanagan, with about 30.8 percent voting for Murphy and 27.9 percent voting for Swanson. In the GOP primary, about 52 percent of voters supported Johnson and 46 percent went for Pawlenty.

This year's primary election saw the highest number of voters statewide since 1982 - a historically high turnout reflected in Washington County. About one in four registered voters cast their ballots, making this year's turnout the highest since 2004 in the county.

The 2016 and 2014 primaries respectively saw 7.3 percent and 9.8 percent of registered voters in Washington County participate.

Several people said their disagreement with national politicians including President Donald Trump motivated them to vote in a primary for the first time.

Brianna Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy who received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, said that research on voting behavior shows that people have commonly cited their level of happiness with national politics as a reason to vote in local elections since the 1970s, when politics first started to become more partisan.

"It has nothing to do with who's running for statewide office. It has almost everything to do with what you think of the president and what direction you think national politics is going in," she said.

Cottage Grove resident Mary Brunner, 47, said she cast her ballot for the first time in a state primary this year. She said she supported Walz for governor because she agreed with him the most on education issues.

"I would say the chaos of the Trump administration and making sure we get non-chaotic people in office," Brunner said of her motivation to vote this year.

Skyeler Sterzinger, 22, also voted in her first primary Tuesday and said she supported Walz.

"He seemed like he would do something," she said, adding she thought he would best advocate for promoting diversity and supporting education.

For Kathy Halberg, who said she usually votes in primaries and has served as an election judge, the primary was a family affair. Halberg and her children, Jonathan Halberg, 21, and Rebekah Halberg, 22, said they voted for Johnson.

County Board

One seat was up for election in both Washington County Board of Commissioners District 2 and 4. Because the board is nonpartisan, the top two candidates who received the most votes will advance to the general election.

District 2 covers covers portions of Woodbury, White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi, as well as the entireties of Oakdale, Landfall, Pine Springs, Birchwood and Willernie. District 4 covers Cottage Grove, Denmark Township, Grey Cloud Island Township, Newport, St. Paul Park and portions of Woodbury and Hastings.

Stan Karwoski and Julie Ohs in Washington County's District 2 and Wayne Johnson and Jeff Swenson in District 4 will appear on the November ballot for voters in their respective districts.

In District 2, Stan Karwoski, who has served on the Washington County Board since winning a 2016 special election, received 52 percent of the vote split among three candidates. Julie Ohs, who serves on Woodbury City Council, received 36 percent.

District 4 had four candidates running, though five appeared on the ballot. Johnson received 24.27 percent and Swenson, who withdrew from the race but still appeared on the ballot, received 24.01 percent of the votes.

Laurie Pellerite, who is 62 and has lived in Woodbury for 31 years, said she voted for Karwoski for the Washington County Board District 2 seat based on his broad variety of experience.

She said she had voted in some primaries before, but didn't remember being as invested in state results as she was this year.

"It's so obvious that every vote counts and that everyone has to get out there," she said.

Karwoski said he thought his doorknocking helped him win voters' support, in addition to his stances on ensuring water quality, improving transportation and promoting workforce and economic development.

"People really like our county. And why switch to a new county board member when I'm proving that I continue the quality of life here?" he said.

Ohs said she thought her literature drops, social media campaign and attendance at community events helped her best reach voters who supported her.

"A lot of people tell me they're ready for a change," she said.

Throughout her campaigning, she said commonly heard concerns from voters were opioid abuse within the county and keeping taxes low.

Johnson, who has served on the Cottage Grove City Council for about a year in a half, said he thought part of his support could be attributed to his commitment to communicating with his constituents on social media and in person. He said he strives to keep residents informed on local government and the different roles that each operation plays.

"When I was out talking to homeowners they shared that they really appreciated that I was constantly putting that information out and and I was engaging residents ... via the different community (Facebook) pages," he said.

He said key issues voters talked about included the growth of Cottage Grove, ensuring safe water and transportation.

"Otherwise, they were very happy with the direction the city and the area was going," he said.

Swenson, who came in second to Johnson by 15 votes, had previously dropped out of the race. He had said at the time that he was concerned he would not be able to put in the amount of time he desired to due to a change in employment, especially because the board meets during the workday.

Still on the ballot

Swenson didn't file any spending reports for campaigning and it had been reported in the Bulletin that he withdrew. Still, because he didn't withdraw within the proper time frame, his name appeared on the ballot and will be required to appear on the November general election ballot.

"This is all about timing," he said. "When I signed up, I was pretty stable with everything with my career. And then, halfway before I began with everything, that's when my university closed a bunch of campuses ... So I was unemployed and looking for a job," he said.

Unsure of whether he could find a job compatible with the daytime hours required of county board members, he withdrew from the race.

"I couldn't give the commissioner job the time that it deserved at that point."

With new job prospects, he is looking into his ability to run.

"I'm in a much better place with regards to being able to serve the residents here," he said.

Swenson said he thinks he gained support because of his name recognition due to his 12 years on the St. Paul Park City Council and participation in his community.

He said he thinks his strengths in financial management, communication and collaboration would make him an effective county commissioner.