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Minnesota’s primary marked by low turnout — and the power of incumbency

Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson with his wife, Sondi, at the campaign's victory party in Plymouth.

Minnesota primary voters on Tuesday sent an incumbent Minneapolis Democrat to a 22rd term in the state House; showed a suburban Republican legislator can support gay marriage; and proved the DFL and Republican parties’ endorsements still matter.

It was a night that mostly favored incumbents, even if many political pundits were still guessing at the last minute as to who would come out on top in a handful of competitive races. The wild card ahead of the primary election was an expected low turnout, which proved to be the case: Less than 10 percent of registered voters in Minnesota showed up to the polls, according to early estimates from the Secretary of State.

But the usual suspects will be moving on to the general election, including Republican-endorsed candidates for statewide office. In one of the most-watched races of the night, GOP-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson, a former state legislator and current Hennepin County commissioner, prevailed in a four-way contest to take on Gov. Mark Dayton next fall with about 30 percent of the vote.

The support of the party helped him beat out two candidates with broader name recognition in the state — former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who ran for governor in 2010 — as well as Orono businessman Scott Honour, who had loaned himself and raised about $1.8 million to back his campaign.

All four candidates are now pledging to turn their attention on beating Dayton in November. They’ll need to work together. Despite facing competitive races on the GOP side, the DFL races for governor and U.S. Senate turned out more voters on primary night.

“Tomorrow we start united,” Johnson tweeted late Tuesday evening. 

McFadden easily wins 

On the U.S. Senate side, the GOP’s primary race was decided easily and quickly — as expected. Businessman Mike McFadden secured the GOP’s nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Al Franken with more than 70 percent of the vote, topping a handful of rivals that included state Rep. Jim Abeler.

McFadden had long been considered the favorite on the Republican side. GOP Chairman Keith Downey made a presumptively early stop at McFadden’s election night party at O’Gara’s Bar in St. Paul. “Tonight, Mike McFadden had an impressive win in the primary because he’s the best man to beat Al Franken,” Downey said. “On Nov. 4, Mike McFadden is going to beat Al Franken because he is the best man for Minnesota.”

MinnPost photo by Devin Henry
Mike McFadden secured the GOP’s nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Al Franken with more than 70 percent of the vote.

McFadden had always intended on running in a primary. But since dispatching his top rivals by winning the GOP’s endorsement in a two-day, 10-ballot convention battle in May, McFadden has ignored his Republican challengers and focused his attention on Franken, who didn’t have a serious primary challenger.

“We can see our greatest days ahead of us,” McFadden said. “And it starts with new leadership in Washington, it starts with replacing Sen. Franken in November.”

Otto prevails

The DFL Party had only one major primary on its hands Tuesday — and it turned out to be far less competitive than most anticipated. State Auditor Rebecca Otto easily survived a primary challenge from former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, whose last-minute entrance into the race puzzled Democrats and won him no favors in the competition.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
State Auditor Rebecca Otto and DFL Chair Ken Martin celebrate Otto’s primary victory over challenger Matt Entenza.

Despite a flurry of paid advertising in the final weeks from Entenza, Otto beat him with whopping 81 percent of the vote. “We had obviously hoped for a better result, but a dramatically low turnout made it difficult to overcome the advantages of an incumbent candidate,” Entenza said in a statement Tuesday night. “Auditor Otto will face Randy Gilbert in November and will do a good job of representing the DFL ticket. I wholeheartedly endorse her re-election.”

Entenza has run in primaries against Democrats before, and many said he saw the auditor position as a possible launching pad to run for either governor or attorney general in 2018. But DFL leaders have privately mused that the hard-feelings fostered in this primary will squash his chances of gaining support in any future races.

Legislative incumbents move ahead

In Minneapolis, a state House race that had been marred by controversy from the start ended in a harmonious whimper. Somali activist and Minneapolis School Board member Mohamud Noor gave 42-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn a serious primary challenge, mainly because of his ability to rally the district’s Somali community. A February precinct caucus in the race ended abruptly after violence broke out, and the campaign was marked by allegations of bullying, threats and voter fraud.

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Phyllis Kahn dominated 9 out of 12 precincts in her race and won with about 54 percent of the vote.

Noor managed to block Kahn from securing the DFL endorsement in the race earlier this year, but it wasn’t enough to win the primary in a diverse district that includes precincts in Cedar-Riverside, Prospect Park and around the University of Minnesota campus. In the end, Kahn dominated 9 out of 12 precincts in the race and won with about 54 percent of the vote.

In an Eden Prairie House race that became a proxy battle over gay marriage — gay marriage may have won.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon put a target on her back for activist Sheila Kihne when she became one of five Republicans in the Legislature to break from her party and vote in favor of legalizing gay marriage in 2013. Kihne, a former supporter of Loon’s, said the vote was a flip-flop and a betrayal, so she helped block Loon from earning the party’s endorsement and launched a campaign for her seat.

But Tuesday, Loon easily defeated Kihne with more than 60 percent of the vote.

The race drew attention and money from outside of the district on both sides of the issue. In the end, Loon said she won because she’s built a record and reputation with voters in the district over the last six years, but she acknowledged gay marriage was an issue for some voters.

“For some voters I think it was,” Loon said. “I certainly had a number of conversations with folks at their doors.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/13/2014 - 11:31 am.

    As someone who lives in legislative District 60B, where the Kahn-Noor primary contest occurred, it seems a bit misleading simply to imply that Phyllis Kahn’s successful campaign was due to her incumbency.

    This was a hard-fought contest, and on the Kahn side accompanied by full-bore campaign strategies that she and her people have honed over the years: door-knocking conversations, get-out-the-vote work on the days prior to and of the primary election. And lots of emphasis on issues, rather than on identity politics that would have “representation” trump “ability and intention to legislate.”

    Phyllis Kahn has a tremendous record to tout, and she did that to an informed electorate who want to keep her in the MN House.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2014 - 12:44 pm.


    We had 6.4% turn-out at the precinct I worked at yesterday. I would love it to have more people come out to vote, if for no other reason to keep my judges on their toes. It gets to be a long boring day if we just get a couple of people an hour.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 08/14/2014 - 08:32 am.

      Turnout was better than I expected

      Without a local race there was no reason to go to the polls unless you voted for IR governor. The other statewide races were already decided. The four candidates for IR governor were so similar I can see why nobody was all that interested.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 08/13/2014 - 05:02 pm.

    To Entenza’s detriment,

    The advantage of incumbancy included knowing the duties of the state auditor.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/13/2014 - 09:48 pm.


    “Minnesota primary voters on Tuesday sent an incumbent Minneapolis Democrat to a 22rd term in the state House”

    One, I have no idea what a 22rd is, and two, I thought that this was a primary election. I realize that a DFLer is lock for this seat, but who could call this responsible journalism? With three authors no less?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 08/14/2014 - 01:30 pm.


      you want to quibble over a small typo and complain that an incumbent that’s occupied the same seat for 40+ years, garnered nearly 78% of the the vote in 2012, has no credible challenger and is healthy, won’t be sent back to St. Paul in November? You people are crowing about your impending Senate takeover on way, way less than that. It’s always amusing when the Breitbart crowd starts to question what is and isn’t “responsible journalism.”

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/16/2014 - 08:50 pm.

        You people

        And what sort of person points out that a primary win doesn’t send a person to the Minnesota Legislature?

  5. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 08/14/2014 - 12:25 pm.

    Independence Party Senate Primary

    I’m still waiting (but not holding my breath) for someone, ANYONE, in the media to notice that something crazy happened in the Independence Party primary race for US Senate. I’m not aware of the details, but all I know is that the endorsed (and seemingly legitimate) candidate lost a 5-way primary to…wait for it…a crazy person (i.e. fundamentalist) who does not at all embody the IP platform or values. I don’t know if it was just the extremely low turnout and 5-way race, or if this was some kind of coup by religious types to secure a party nomination. Either way, Kevin Terrell lost the primary…something I don’t think ANYONE expected to happen. My impression was that he was the only real candidate in the race, and somehow lost. Given the low number of dedicated IP’ers to begin with, you can imagine that the party’s endorsed candidates should win every time, no contest.

    I know the IP has really fallen in stature since the 2010 Governor’s race, but they still do have “major party” status in MN. That status is now officially in jeopardy, as they have no serious candidates for statewide office (Bob Helland for Sec. of State might be serious, the AG candidate maybe possibly too, but one can never really be sure when the media gives them no coverage whatsoever).

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