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Straw polls at Tuesday caucuses should bring some clarity to the Minnesota governor's race

Watch the straw polls more closely than usual at Tuesday night's political caucuses, for finally, after more than a year of campaigns, they will begin to bring some clarity to the gubernatorial races.

The straw polls should eliminate as many as half of the 10 DFL candidates.

On the Republican side, they should show if Rep. Tom Emmer  is gaining ground — as most believe he is — on Rep. Marty Seifert, who has been the Republican Party's presumptive leader since a straw poll at last fall's state convention.

They could even begin to show how much interest there is in the Independence Party, which again will open up its caucuses to people sitting at home at their computers. (Roughly 75 percent of the Independents who participated in caucuses two years ago were onliners.)

Tuesday starts with fundamentals
Start with the basics: There are 4,139 precincts in Minnesota, though not each precinct will hold a caucus for each party. In Minneapolis' DFL stronghold, for example, Republicans bundle some precincts.

We may have seen a preview Sunday of the DFL caucuses when members of a cross section of progressive organizations, under the TakeAction Minnesota label, bestowed blessings on three candidates: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Rep. Paul Thissen and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Rybak was the top vote-getter, with 336 votes cast from 643 voting members. Thissen received 264 votes; Kelliher, 261. Sen. John Marty was fourth, with 250, followed by former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton (138), Matt Entenza (105), Steve Kelley (104),  Tom Rukavina (92), Sen.Tom Bakk (48) and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner (46).

Members of the organization were encouraged to vote for their top three candidates. The voting was done at the organization’s meeting Sunday, as well as online and via mailed ballots. The voting followed a long process of screenings with each of the candidates.

The organization said its members will make individual choices as to whom to support among the top three or remain uncommitted at Senate district/county caucuses.

What’s important is that this organization is made up of people who will attend caucuses. 

The caucuses, of course, are only the first step in the process of selecting delegates to each of the parties' state conventions. Caucuses will select delegates, some of whom will strongly support individual candidates, to Senate district and county conventions. Those conventions will be held throughout February and March, and it's at those conventions where state delegates will be selected.

Both the Republicans and DFLers have moved up their state conventions this year. The DFLers will meet in Duluth, starting on April 23. The Republicans will meet at the Minneapolis Convention Center beginning April 29. Endorsement requires the support of 60 percent of delegates.

Democratic primary seems inevitable
The state primary is expected to be earlier, too, probably Aug. 10, though that date has not been finalized.

Dayton has ensured that the primary will be the main event in the DFL process. He's bypassing the entire endorsement process and, at his request, will not be listed on Tuesday's straw ballots.  Entenza and Gaertner also have said they will go to the primary no matter the endorsement outcome, but they will participate in the straw poll ballots. 

Tony Sutton, chairman of the state Republican Party, is convinced that the primary will not be a factor in his party's gubernatorial selection process.

"It would be foolhardy to challenge the endorsed candidate," Sutton said. "The activists and the people who vote in primaries will support the endorsed candidate."

It's unclear whether the IP gubernatorial choice will need to be decided by a primary. By their very nature, IPers don't aspire to clarity.

Intriguing congressional races
One more bit of housekeeping before moving on to the significance of those gubernatorial straw polls. Endorsements for the contested U.S. House seats are done at congressional district conventions, not state conventions. Both parties have intriguing races to watch.

In the 1st District, for example, Republicans Randy Demmer, Allen Quist and Jim Hagedorn are battling to see who will take on incumbent Tim Walz.  "A barnburner," said Sutton of that race.

In the 6th District, Sen. Tarryl Clark and Dr. Maureen Reed are competing for endorsement and the chance to challenge Rep. Michele Bachmann. Reed, it should be noted, has said she will compete in the primary, with or without endorsement.

OK, now the straw polls.

Even before the first vote is cast, the straw poll spinning has begun, because winning isn't absolutely necessary to be viable.

What's necessary?

"If we come within shouting distance [of the top] in the straw poll, we have a real chance of winning endorsement,'' said Tina Smith, campaign manager for Rybak.

Shouting distance, of course, is undefined. 

Bakk is even less precise in saying what it takes for a candidacy to remain alive after Tuesday night.

"You can't read too much into the straw poll,'' said Bakk, who obviously is trying to set low expectations. "But the thing is, you can't finish at the bottom, because then it becomes very hard to remain viable. It's like fundraising — if you're at the bottom, it's fair for people to ask, 'How viable are you?' "

Bakk believes, by the way, that metro area candidates — specifically Rybak and Kelliher — have distinct straw poll advantages because they will have the highest name recognition among those attending caucuses in the metro area. And the metro area will have by far the largest turnout numbers.

Kelliher may have the most on the line in the straw polls, because she has the most institutional support from unions and elected officials and, therefore, comes closer than any candidate to be the favorite to win state convention endorsement. Being labeled a front-runner is not a particularly good thing at this point in the race.

Other campaigns insist that the vast majority of people likely to attend caucuses are entering this phase of the campaign uncommitted.

Again, turn to Bakk's assessment: "It appears the majority are undecided, and that's helpful to me. That provides someone with less name recognition to make their case at the convention."

What makes all of this more unpredictable than usual, Bakk believes, is that unions have not been drawn to just one or two candidates. In fact, a couple of major union players — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Teamsters Joint Council 32 — have essentially taken themselves out of being players at the state convention, because they've endorsed Dayton, who will be a convention non-factor.

The Republican Party's Sutton rightfully points out that winning a straw poll "can be like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx."

Reaching back in his party's history, he noted that such people as Dave Printy and Brian Sullivan all were straw poll champs, but didn't end up with party endorsement.

"It's not necessarily a precursor," Sutton said. "But that being said, it's important, because the pundits write about — and the candidates spin about — it."

In a year in which there are so many candidates, the straw poll may not necessarily determine winners, but it surely will identify some losers.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

It is refreshing and gratifying to see the tuned-in members of Take Action Minnesota choosing Paul Thissen as a leader in the DFL Race. He is an engaged, attractive candidate who richly deserves our attention.

Resist the urge to make this a name ID contest. There is time for that later. Paul Thissen for Minnesota.

Thanks for this well-written and informative article.

I could be wrong, but the choice of Rybak as top vote-getter by TakeAction may be partly due to there being so many members who are from Minneapolis. Which is not to say that he wouldn't be a great governor.

For the information of those who are especially concerned about universal health care for all Minnesotans, all the DFL candidates except Steve Kelley (who would veto it in favor of incremental progress) will sign John Marty's Minnesota Health Act if the legislature enacts it. Several are enthusiastic supporters who would actively support its passage. You can read their responses to the Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition's questionnaire at www.muhcc.org.