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GOP Candidates For Minnesota Governor Hold Debate At Private, Members-Only Club

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Five Republican candidates vying to challenge Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) debated Monday evening at a private, members-only club that had previously hosted a debate for GOP Senate candidates this year.

The Minnesota Freedom Club invited five Republican gubernatorial candidates -- former state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, venture capitalist Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers and state Sen. Dave Thompson. The nonprofit club, which is located in Champlin, Minn. (near Minneapolis), tweeted out their names.

According to the club's website, would-be members must pay a minimum fee of $3,000 to join and be sponsored by an existing member or staffer.

Brandon Sawalich, an executive at a medical devices company, moderated Monday's debate. Sawalich dropped out of the race to head the Minnesota GOP in 2011 after the Associated Press reported that he had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2003.

The Minnesota Freedom Club, which did not respond to a request for comment, appears to host such candidate forums without inviting the general public or the press. The five candidates did not respond to requests for comment about participating in a closed-door debate.

Whichever candidates win the Senate and gubernatorial GOP primaries would be well-served if the club backs him or her in the general election, as it maintains state and federal PACs to elect candidates to office and is known for its muscular advocacy of conservative candidates.

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is requesting that recordings from the gubernatorial debate this week and the Senate debate in February be released to the public "so that we know what candidates are saying and where they really stand on the issues," according to Ellen Perrault, communications director for the party.

"This is not the way Minnesotans expect their candidates to run for office, and it begs the question, 'What are they hiding?'” Perrault told HuffPost on Tuesday. "We believe that candidates should tell all voters what they believe, and not tell one audience one thing and another audience something else entirely."

The Republican candidates face a tough challenge in the gubernatorial election. A Star Tribune poll in February found that 58 percent of Minnesotans approve of the Democratic governor's job performance, while a KSTP and Survey USA poll released last week shows that Dayton has double-digit leads over each of his potential GOP opponents.

The Minnesota primary election is scheduled for Aug. 12.

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