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Tuesday’s party caucuses: GOP straw polls likely to steal the spotlight

Even DFLers understand that it’s top-of-the ticket GOP competitions for governor and U.S. Senate that will gain most of the attention.

Minnesotans will once again return to their precinct caucus locations on Tuesday night to help decide important party matters.
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

Find your caucus

To find the location of your party caucus, check out the secretary of state’s Caucus Finder.

Any excitement produced from Tuesday night’s precinct caucuses in Minnesota will likely come from the Republican straw polls.

Even DFLers understand that it’s the grass-roots views of the top-of-the ticket GOP competitions for governor and U.S. Senate that will gain most of the attention.

Additionally, of course, there will be that always-intriguing storyline about who controls the Republican Party: the Tea Party Patriots and their friends or whatever is left of Republicans of yesteryear?

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That doesn’t mean DFLers also don’t have serious business on their hands.

With state control, DFL playing defense

The headliners — Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken — won’t be challenged in their own party. DFLers currently hold all of the statewide offices, and the only opening will be for secretary of state, where Mark Ritchie has decided not to run for a third term.

But there’s real, if not headline-grabbing, work for DFLers to take care of. The precinct caucuses will be Step 1 in part efforts to hold onto the House majority the DFL surprisingly grabbed back from the GOP in the elections of 2012.

“We have a strong story to tell,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy.

But, in the next breath, she admitted there are challenges, too. In non-presidential election years, for example, it often is difficult to inspire the DFL base to get to the polls in numbers needed to hold power. Precinct caucuses will serve as a pep rally for the party.

At many DFL gatherings, there’s likely to be a heavy dose of rhetoric supporting an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

On the other hand, the DFL has to deftly handle the mining issue — the old jobs-versus-the-environment battle — to prevent creating the sort of splits that dampen activist enthusiasm.

Independence Party caucuses, too

As always, there’s another factor in Minnesota politics: The Independence Party also will be having caucuses Tuesday night, either in person or online.

For years, the party has attempted to create some sort of a meaningful brand by winning elections in lower-level races, but victory there, too, has proven elusive.

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The questions surrounding the IP’s impact in 2014 likely won’t be determined Tuesday night. In fact, the IP’s impact likely won’t be apparent until it’s known whether there are any “big names” willing to carry the party banner in either the Senate or governor’s race.

Back to the GOP and its caucuses.

Nothing unites a party so much as losing, and after winning control of both the state Senate and House in 2010, the GOP managed to lose everything by 2012. Although the gubernatorial race was extremely close, the legislative sweep by DFLers surprised all — including most DFLers.

In one election cycle, the GOP went from having an 11-seat majority in the House to a 12-seat deficit.  In the Senate, Republicans went from holding a seven-seat majority to finding themselves with a nine-seat minority status.

Two proposed constitutional amendments — one banning same-sex marriage and one changing voting rules — were driven by the most conservative elements of the party. Those controversies, together with a sex scandal, a mismanaged state party office and demands that its candidates pass red-meat conservative purity tests, all led to the amazing turnaround in power.

Toned-down GOP rhetoric?

Entering the precinct caucuses, the GOP seems to be toning down some of the hard-right talk.

No one represents that effort to lower the rhetoric more than gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson.

In an email to GOP activists, Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, wrote:

“What if you put yourself in the place of your non-Republican neighbors whose votes will be crucial in a statewide election? What will they think of each candidate? Will they like him? Will they trust him? Will they vote for him?”

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(Digression: The co-reporters on this story had a bit of discussion on Johnson’s comments. Grow wondered if Johnson hadn’t blundered by making constant references to “him”: “Wouldn’t women ask the question, ‘Hey, pal, what about me?” Brucato, though, thought Grow was missing the obvious: “He chose the masculine pronoun because only men are running” in the governor’s race.)

Johnson is among a half-dozen men seeking his party’s nod for governor. Rob Farnsworth, Scott Honour, Marty Seifert, Dave Thompson and Kurt Zellers round out the field. All are similarly conservative, but their styles are very different.

For example, Thompson, though affable, is the sort of red-meat conservative Johnson was suggesting is not electable.

Johnson is not alone in talking of the importance of electability.

Tea Party movement still could be strong

Walter Hudson, a pioneer in Minnesota’s Tea Party Patriot movement and a supporter of the Senate campaign of Mike McFadden, said in an e-mail that political pundits are way off the mark by suggesting that those of the Tea Party persuasion are more interested in principle than victory.

“Silly remarks by some candidates around the country have fostered the perception that the Tea Party wields its support recklessly,” Hudson wrote. “All have begun to see the value in approaching politics methodically. What we need are good conservatives who comport themselves professionally and run serious, credible campaigns. That’s what everyone I talk to wants whether they are a Tea Party activist or a long-time GOP donor.”

There is some disagreement over how much impact the Tea Party will have on Tuesday’s caucuses.

Hudson believes it will be substantial, although that doesn’t mean Tea Party activists all will support the same candidates. But they will show up, and showing up is power.

But Andy Aplikowski, a GOP officer in the 6th Congressional District, believes that the Tea Party influence may not be quite as strong as in the last couple of cycles. Additionally, he believes that candidates who show willingness to abide by party endorsement will gain favor over those who may pass all the purity tests.

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State Sen. Julianne Ortman, who is running against Franken, likely made a wise strategic move when she announced recently that she will abide by the endorsement. That may help her make up for her voting record, which hasn’t always pleased the strongest conservatives in her party.

McFadden has said he likely would run in a primary for the Senate seat, and state Rep. Jim Abeler, too, has indicated he’d consider a primary run.

But whether the GOP can find and support legislative candidates who can win back key suburban districts remains one of the big questions that will only begin to be answered Tuesday night.

Control of House key for DFL

Meantime, the DFL’s Murphy, who did so much to put together the winning slate of candidates two years ago, wants to avoid the losses that typically follow the sort of victories that the DFL enjoyed two years ago.

In fact, she says, there could be gains — especially in the eastern suburbs of the metro area and in northwestern Minnesota.

“I know 2014 will be challenging,” she said. “But we have executed our agenda. The economy is growing. There are all sorts of benchmarks that show we are doing better than before and better than the states around us. The message isn’t simple, but I don’t think people want to go backward.”

There is one particularly interesting group of precinct caucuses to watch: House District 60B in Minnapolis. That’s where Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who’s serving her 21st term, is being challenged by Mohamud Noor, who was recently named to the Minneapolis School Board.

Kahn was among the first ripple of women to enter the Legislature when she was elected to office in 1972.

Noor, 40 years younger than her, comes from a Somali community that showed its political clout by supporting successful Minneapolis City Council candidate Abdi Warsame. Warsame became the council’s first Somali member when, in November, he defeated longtime DFL incumbent Robert Lilligren.

The key to Warsame’s victory was very early political organizing.

And such efforts are often the key to success at precinct caucuses.