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A field guide to one of the weirdest Minnesota primary elections ever

From most compelling races to the oddity of voting in the time COVID, an overview of what might be one of the more notable elections of our lifetimes. 

There are 134 seats in the Minnesota House and 67 seats in the Minnesota Senate up for election in 2020.
There are 134 seats in the Minnesota House and 67 seats in the Minnesota Senate up for election in 2020.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota has to have a primary election that will end August 11, give or take a day or two. It’s in the state legal code, and the consent decree.

But that doesn’t mean that candidates and political parties are obligated to make it exciting. In many cases, the opposite is true, with the DFL and the GOP trying to make their own endorsement process more important than the primary. Candidates seeking endorsements are urged to drop out if they don’t win that prize. 

Some do. Many don’t.

When they don’t — or when the parties weren’t able to agree on an endorsement — there are contested primaries. In 2020, a couple of those races will offer some real intrigue, including two congressional primaries — the Republican primary in the 7th Congressional District and the DFL primary in the 5th Congressional District. There’s also a handful of legislative races pitting incumbents against challenges from each party’s outer edges that in a few cases could bear fruit (but in most cases will not). 

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Also, Minneapolis also has a ranked-choice election for a vacant city council seat in Ward 6, a race that will heighten interest in those neighborhoods and could impact a key legislative contest.

Here, then — from most compelling races to the oddity of voting in the time COVID — is a guide to what might be one of the most notable primary elections of anyone’s lifetime. 

Voting COVID Style?

The first step toward electing a lot of officeholders in Minnesota this year, the primary campaign season, was drowned out by events: COVID-19, the homicide of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and a seemingly unending session of the Minnesota Legislature. It wasn’t helped by the modern election calendar, with voting that begins weeks before election day and counting that ends two days after.

The pandemic was the biggest weirdness-inducing factor. The Legislature debated (briefly) whether it might make sense to shift to all-vote-by mail. It wasn’t just that voters might be skittish about hanging out indoors for 20 minutes with strangers, but that election judges might not sign up for an all-day stint in such an environment.

That ended the way most controversial issues end in the state these days — with an impasse between the DFL-controlled House, which liked the idea, and a GOP-controlled Senate, which didn’t. Instead, the two bodies settled on a relatively rare compromise that saw millions in federal money finally cleared for spending to promote no-excuse absentee balloting and to help officials to provide more space and sanitation at the polls.

Lexi Menth of Seattle holds up her vote-by-mail ballot.
REUTERS/Jason Redmond
The Legislature debated (briefly) whether it might make sense to shift to all-vote-by mail.
The DFL secretary of state and DFL attorney general then agreed to settle lawsuits from Democratic-leaning plaintiffs to make two changes that hadn’t been part of the legislation. Minnesota would no longer enforce the law that requires mailed ballots to be witnessed by another registered voter; and it would count ballots received up to two days after August 11, as long as they had a postmarked by that date.

All of which means that close races will not be decided on election night, with delays that will be exacerbated in the November general election when the state will have a seven-day post-election ballot count. In other words, election night results in Minnesota are going to become election week results. 

Vote by mail (or car if you wait too long)

The lawsuits will help late-deciding voters who will no longer have to guess how long the U.S. Postal Service will take to deliver completed ballots. But there is still a risk of ballots mailed August 11 not arriving in time to be counted. However, late voters can drive their ballots to voting centers and drop them off, as long as they are dropped by 3 p.m. on election day. 

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Despite a boom in mail voting that was caused by the pandemic — and encouraged by elections officials — it is likely that a lot of those ballots will never be cast.

As of July 31, elections offices around Minnesota had responded to 545,829 absentee ballot requests. Is that a lot? Well, in 2018, there were 54,264 processed in a comparable period. In 2016, there were 25,930.

So yes, that’s a lot. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
But having a ballot on your kitchen counter doesn’t mean it will be cast. Some of those applications could have been made with an eye toward the general election. Some voters could decide there isn’t that much of interest in the races on their particular ballot and hopefully recycle the paper. (House Speaker Melissa Hortman reflected on voter procrastination when she said Monday that she’d just sent in her ballot after having it for several weeks: “And I’m the speaker of the House,” she said.)

If all of those mailed ballots are returned, it would amount to double the turnout in the 2016 primary, when only 294,797 voters took part, an ego-bruising 7.4 percent turnout in a state with a fetish for touting voter participation.

Still, the secretary of state reported last week that elections officials had already received 245,371 ballots, which suggests a larger turnout than in 2016. And that doesn’t predict how many will vote in person, something that will present a different experience compared to past elections, but will not represent a huge shock to anyone who has gone to a grocery store since March.

So what’s the draw?

If you live and vote in one-quarter of Minnesota, there is a pretty interesting primary on your ballot, depending on your party preference. In the Minneapolis-centered 5th Congressional District, first-term incumbent Ilhan Omar is receiving a well-financed challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux in the DFL primary.

The race is also drawing hundreds of thousands of dollars to an independent expenditure campaign by a national PAC Americans for Tomorrow’s Future. The winner will have to wait until November to be sure of being elected. But in the 5th, the DFL primary winner is sure of being elected.

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In Western Minnesota, a GOP primary will determine the challenger to 15-term DFL incumbent Collin Peterson. Former (reluctant) Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach is the endorsed candidate but must get past David Hughes, who was the party’s candidate in 2016 and 2018, and three others. CD7 is a top target for national Republicans to pick up a seat while defending two they gained in Minnesota in 2018 (the 1st and the 8th), the same year they lost two previously GOP-held seats (the 2nd and the 3rd).

What about the state Legislature?

State party and party caucus leaders are usually happy when they have at least one candidate in each of the 201 legislative seats on the ballot. Yet they are often less happy when they have more than one. Contested primaries consume resources and sometimes challenge the clout of the party endorsement.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Such dynamics are in play in a relatively small number of districts, and many of those contests are based on the assertion that some of the most-conservative Republicans in the Legislature aren’t conservative enough and that some of the most-liberal DFLers in the Legislature aren’t liberal enough.

For instance, two of the state’s most prominent Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake and House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown, both have GOP rivals running to their right. Neither challenger is considered much of a threat.

State Sen. Jeff Hayden
State Sen. Jeff Hayden
The DFL has some more serious races, which are based in both ideological and generational divisions. Three DFL incumbents — Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth, Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Rep. Raymond Dehn of Minneapolis — are not only facing challengers, they lost the official party endorsement to them. Those endorsed challengers are, respectively, Jen McEwen, Omar Fateh and Esther Agbaje, and all three are considered serious challengers.

Hayden has been in the Legislature since 2008 and is a leader of the POCI Caucus (People of Color and Indigenous) and lives just blocks from the memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis. His challenge, Fateh, is a prominent Somali-American activist who might be aided by another race on the ballot: an election to replace Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame. Warsame’s Ward 6 includes the heart of the Twin Cities’ Somali community, and the 11-person race includes eight candidates of East African heritage vying to replace the city’s first Somali-American council member.

The DFL also has intra-party challenges in St Paul’s District 66B; incumbent John Lesch is facing challenger Athena Hollins. Another challenge comes in the DFL District 65, where incumbent Sen. Sandra Pappas of St. Paul is being challenged by Laverne McCartney Knighton.

None of those three seats is at risk of going GOP in November. But the same can’t be said of several battleground seats that drew late-filing candidates who were motivated by the death of George Floyd. 

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Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, for example, will have a tough general election in District 53 if she gets by Marquita Stephens next week. And endorsed DFL candidate Ann Johnson Stewart must defeat Zina Alston-Fizer before trying to capture the DFL’s No. 1 state Senate target, the seat representing District 44, which opened up after Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chose not to seek a second term.

The same is true of the DFL challenge to Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, where endorsed candidate Bonnie Westlin got a late challenge from Aarica Coleman.