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Hot governor’s race didn’t catch fire at all Minnesota caucuses

CAUCUS NIGHT IN MINNESOTA Nobody expected the sort of record crowds and excitement of the 2008 presidential-year caucuses.

Senate District 33 caucus participants volunteer to be considered for GOP delegate positions.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Senate District 33 caucus participants volunteer to be considered for GOP delegate positions.

“A Republican revolution is sweeping America and Minnesota!”

So declared GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in one of the fiery phrases from the kinds of letters that candidates sent to those attending last night’s Republican Party caucuses.

Could be he’s right, but judging by what happened in Senate District 33 in Plymouth, it’s a real quiet revolution. A low-budget one, too.

Twenty-eight Republicans turned out in Precinct 9 at Wayzata High School, and despite the heated race for governor, not one word was spoken on behalf of any candidate. And not a single resolution was proposed.

At the end of the evening, there were four bucks in the Uncle Sam donation hat at the front of the room.

DFL caucus quiet, too
Likewise, there appears to be no DFL revolution in the making, either.

According to MinnPost’s Eric Black, there were yawns and empty seats in the heart of DFL country in south Minneapolis. At the precinct caucus he attended, 42 people showed up, with the task of sending 53 delegates to its Senate District convention.

As was true in Plymouth, there was virtually no debate about the crowded DFL gubernatorial field of candidates. Many of the party’s candidates didn’t even have representatives on hand to pass out literature.

Of course, precinct caucuses are only the first step in the long process toward endorsement. And at least on the DFL side where a primary battle appears certain, party endorsement doesn’t guarantee a gubernatorial candidate a spot on the November ballot.

Nobody expected the sort of record crowds and excitement of the 2008 presidential-year caucuses.

But the bland nature of these caucuses would indicate most Minnesotans are paying little attention to a governor’s race that candidates from both parties keep trying to say is vitally important to the state’s future. Either that, or no candidate has managed to generate much excitement at this early date.

Straw poll winners — and losers
Still, there were winners and clear losers based on straw polls conducted by all parties.

On the DFL side, the biggest winner likely was Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who, with 77 percent of the vote counted, had a percentage-point lead over House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Certainly, getting 21 per cent of the vote of about 22,000 DFLers doesn’t lead to ticker-tape parades, but this victory was a small step for Rybak in debunking the theory that a big-city mayor can’t draw statewide support for governor. It also was a signal to Kelliher that for all her institutional support from other pols and unions, she’s not yet convinced rank-and-file activists that she’s the answer to ending the DFL’s long, long gubernatorial slump.

On the Republican side, Rep. Marty Seifert maintained the strength he showed last fall in the GOP state convention’s straw poll. He finished with 50 percent of the vote from about 19,000 Republicans who attended caucuses. He finished about a dozen points ahead of Rep. Tom Emmer, who is seen as more appealing to the Tea Party/Libertarian brand of Republicans who have become a growing factor in party politics..

Losers on the Republican side were easy to define. State Sen. David Hann and former Rep. Bill Haas, who were thought to be quasi-serious candidates, didn’t even bother to send letters to be read to caucus participants. They were rewarded for their lack of interest, organization or money by abysmal straw poll results. Hann received about 5 percent of the straw poll vote, while Haas drew about 2 percent.

Expect their farewells from the race soon.

Two-person race for GOP, less clarity for DFL
So the caucuses gave the Republicans a two-person race heading into the next round of conventions.

Nothing is so clear on the DFL side. Yes, Rybak was a winner. But nearly 15 percent of the caucus attendees recorded themselves as uncommitted, which means even those at the bottom of the poll can hold on to the belief that the race for endorsement is far from over.

Why, some of the bottom-feeders in the DFL straw poll were spinning the results before the first votes were tallied.

“Some candidates will spin the straw poll results,” said candidate Steve Kelley’s campaign manager, Carrie Lucking, in a statement issued before caucus doors opened. “But there’s a reason it’s a straw poll. The results have no impact on who becomes the DFL candidate for governor.”

That means despite picking up only 4 percent of the vote, Kelley likely will stay the course — for a while at least. The only “serious” candidate Kelley defeated, Susan Gaertner, received just 2 percent of the vote. But she’s already said she’s headed for the primary.

Sen. Tom Bakk, who for days has been lowering expectations on the meaning of the straw poll, picked up only 6 percent of the vote but didn’t bat an eye about staying in the race.

“The straw poll results reinforce what we have known for months,” Bakk said in a statement. “There will be a number of strong candidates vying for DFL endorsement.”

It does seem that even Minnesotans who attended caucuses Tuesday night are waiting for something — or somebody — to excite them.

Independence Party holding month-long caucus process
That excitement wasn’t generated by the Independence Party, either, which drew just 301 people to the caucuses it held at eight locations. That small turnout, however, in part comes from its novel approach to “caucusing.”

As usual, the IP officials are doing things their own way. They’re holding “online caucuses” through the end of the month, meaning they’ll have no final straw poll tally until then.

For the record, among the those attending the IP sessions, Tom Horner, a longtime Republican activist, was the top vote-getter in that minuscule group, with 48.9 per cent, followed by Joe Repya at just over 28 percent.

*  *  *  *

Go back to Wayzata High in Plymouth, where Republicans from Senate District 33 were holding their caucuses.

Dick Mueller, who was elected co-chair of Precinct 9, said he was pleased by the turnout.

“More than I expected,” he said.

Mueller, it should be noted, was reluctant to put himself up for a precinct office.

Precinct co-chair Dick Mueller shows a map depicting the "blueing" of the eastern part of Senate District 33.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Precinct co-chair Dick Mueller shows a map depicting the “blueing” of the eastern part of Senate District 33.

“I’m getting old,” he told those attending the caucus. “I’m fighting just to stay vertical.”

But no younger people in the room were willing to volunteer for party office. So, Mueller and Patti Meier, a longtime activist, said they’d act as co-chairs for the next two years.

Meier ran the meeting and did her best to spark a bit of passion. She urged participants to look at a map of the 3rd Congressional District, which is held by first-term Republican Erik Paulsen.

“It’s getting bluer,” said Meier, noting that state legislative seats on the southern and eastern portions of the suburban district are now controlled by DFLers. “We need help to beat the other side.”

Volunteers hard to find
She asked for a show of hands to see who would be willing to make calls on behalf of Republican candidates.

No takers.

She asked for a show of hands for those willing to work as Republican election-day observers, noting that the Al Franken-Norm Coleman race had shown the importance of the role.

No takers.

The precinct did have enough volunteers to fill the 10 delegate spots for the Senate district convention. But only two people volunteered to be delegate alternates.

“We need more,” Meier said to the attendees. “Anybody?”

No more hands went up.

Laughing, Meier said, “We still need more. Got any neighbors you don’t like?”

There was a bit of laughter.

Certainly, the candidates had a hand in what appeared to be a lack of enthusiasm at the Senate District 33 caucuses. There was not a single candidate poster in sight. Only Seifert, Emmer and Leslie Davis had literature at the school.

When it came time for the caucuses to discuss the candidates, there were no representatives from any of the campaigns in the room to talk up the virtues of their candidate.

So when Meier asked if anyone wanted to discuss any of the candidates, there were no takers. This seemed to come as a disappointment to several who wanted to learn more about the candidates.

“I’m just trying to stay on top of things,” said Terry Cross, who attended the caucus hoping to hear more about the candidates. “I just don’t know that much about them. We get a ton of emails from Emmer and, I think, a couple of mailings from Seifert, but that’s about it.”

The straw poll was quickly and quietly done by secret ballot.

Meier then asked if anyone had any party platform resolutions to introduce.

No one did.

“Can you believe that?” Meier said. “Well then, does anyone have any discussion on life in general?”

No discussion.

The meeting was adjourned 50 minutes after it had begun.

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