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Turnout numbers offer a tale of two very different caucus nights for DFL, GOP

2018 GOP caucus in Eden Prairie
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
State Rep. Jenifer Loon, lower right, speaking to the crowd assembled at a Republican caucus on Tuesday night in Eden Prairie.

The 2018 election unofficially kicked off in Minnesota Tuesday evening, as tens of thousands of Minnesotans piled into their local school gymnasiums, cafeterias and community centers to signal their preference in the open race for governor and debate the core values of their chosen parties.

It was precinct caucus night across the state, when the Democratic and Republican parties organized gatherings to start the process of selecting candidates in the upcoming election, which will feature an open governor’s race, two U.S. Senate races, three constitutional offices, all eight congressional seats and the Minnesota House on the ballot. 

But the governor’s race was the star of Tuesday night, with attendees at both parties’ caucuses casting ballots in a statewide preference poll. As the results trickled in late Tuesday evening and early Wednesday, DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz emerged the victor on the DFL side, with more than 30 percent of the vote, and State Auditor Rebecca Otto came in second place with more than 20 percent of the vote.

"A straw poll isn’t everything, but we’re so encouraged to see support for our positive message from across the state," Walz said in a statement. "I’ve coached enough to know that we can't take anything for granted — these results are no exception."

Republican Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson was the clear favorite on the Republican side, pulling in about 45 percent of the vote. Johnson was also the party’s nominee in 2014, when he lost to current Gov. Mark Dayton. Former Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey earned nearly 15 percent of the vote.

“Though just a snapshot in time, Republican voters across the state made their feelings extremely clear,” Johnson said in a statement late Tuesday. “By every indication we are uniting the party and winning over the large majority of Republican voters in Minnesota.”

Just the beginning

But both sides of the race are far from settled. All told, nearly 16 percent of Republican caucus goers said they were undecided on a gubernatorial candidate, while more than 12 percent of Democrats said the same. The results of the preference ballot are not binding, and all candidates still have a shot to take the lead at the parties endorsing conventions, which will be held in June. 

In 2014, the last governor’s race, Marty Seifert won the Republican caucus preference poll but went on to lose the endorsement to Johnson. In 2010, the last open governor’s race in the state, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak won the DFL caucus preference poll but lost the endorsement to House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. From the conventions, endorsed candidates must also still face off against potential primary challengers. In 2010, Kelliher lost the DFL primary to Dayton, who went on to defeat Republican Tom Emmer in the general election. 

Whatever the results, Democrats were bolstered by their turnout numbers. With 72 percent of precincts reporting, party officials estimate 27,447 Democrats came out to caucuses Tuesday night, up from about 14,585 in the last midterm election, in 2014, when Dayton was the incumbent and the party didn’t hold a preference poll. In 2010, the last time the DFL had an open race for governor during caucus, 22,532 people voted in the party’s preference poll.

Dean Phillips
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Democratic congressional candidate Dean Phillips speaking to delegates at a Democratic caucus in Eden Prairie Tuesday night.

Republicans currently control the Legislature, and with an open governor’s seat, the 2018 election gives them their first shot in years at taking full control of state government. That possibility, plus the chance for Democrats to register their opposition to President Donald Trump, contributed to the high turnout for the DFL.

“Between this strong showing and our record-breaking fundraising numbers, it’s clear our party is heading into this pivotal election year with the energy it needs to create a blue wave across Minnesota,” DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said in a statement.

It was a much different story in the GOP caucuses. Republican turnout was at an all-time low, with 10,909 people showing up Tuesday night, down from about 14,109 caucus attendees in 2014. Both years featured an open contest on the GOP side of the ticket. In a statement, Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said caucuses are the “first opportunity” for the public to get involved in the 2018 election. 

“Tonight's process gave the gubernatorial candidates an early gauge on public opinion,” she said. “We look forward to strong Republican performance in November and are excited to turn Minnesota red." 

‘Something happening here’

In Eden Prairie, Republicans and Democrats were caucusing at the same location — the high school — and so many people showed up that the parking lot was full, with cars lined up and stretching along nearby streets. The suburban swing district has long been a target of both parties in legislative and statewide races.

On the side of the school where Republicans were caucusing, Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens walked around and shook hands and introduced herself. A late entrant into the race, Stephens emphasized her credentials as a suburban mayor and the importance of Republicans turning out in districts like Eden Prairie. “If we do not win suburban communities, the DFL advantage in St. Paul will be too strong,” she told the crowd.

Jack and Anne Roberts have been going to caucus in Minnesota every cycle since the 1980s. Children of the 1960s, Anne said they both grew up knowing it’s important to participate in government at all levels. “We like caucus because it allows us to get involved.” 

This year is no different, but they didn’t walk in the door supporting any particular candidate for governor. They didn’t know much about anyone in the Republican field, and in particular, they were waiting to see if former Gov. Tim Pawlenty might jump into the race. On the same day as caucus, Pawlenty announced he was leaving his lobbying job in Washington, D.C., increasing speculation that he will run for governor. “Until we hear what he’s going to do we are undecided,” Jack said. “I think I would support him again. I liked him when he served as governor.”

On the Democratic side, volunteers were busy pointing caucus attendees to their corresponding precinct classroom. Two Democratic candidates for Congress, Dean Phillips and Brian Santa Maria, mingled around the room, greeting people as they walked in the door. Both are running for the chance to take on Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen this fall, but at one point in the evening, they embraced in a hug in the middle of a cafeteria.

DFL Rep. Laurie Pryor, who was elected in the district last cycle, said the last time there was an open governor’s race in 2010, the high school caucus location was almost empty. She thinks Democrats are more motivated this year by all the races on the state ballot and by Trump. “You look around here tonight and you think, there really is something happening here,” she said. “It’s exciting.”

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Comments (14)

MN 37B might be a race to watch

Blaine lawyer Amir Malik and Brandon Taitt, an IT specialist (interviewed in an earlier MInnPost story on DFL hopefulls) are both looking to take on incumbent Nolan West, a controversial figure who was narrowly elected in 2016. I saw a lot of enthusiastic supporters for both candidates at last night caucus.. They seem to be getting more local buzz than the statewide races and congressional seats.

Second this

Blaine is exactly the kind of district that could flip.

And the Muslim infiltration of GOP caucuses?

Did that come about?

Low Turnout

Sounds like they could have used the boost in numbers.

GOP have always been more quiet

and less likely to raise a ruckus but have always shown up to vote. Not having a good turnout for caucus is a bad sign. The TEA party rallies were so unusual for conservatives that the left leaning MSM couldn’t comprehend what was happening and called them KKK radicals. 2016 polls for President showed the flaws in understanding what regular folks truly feel. Lack of interest in GOP caucuses should be a concern because grassroots conservatives do show up when motivated.

More on the precinct caucus scene in Eden Prairie

I attended the DFL Senate District 48 precinct caucuses at Eden Prairie High School as a participant. Also greeting Eden Prairie and Minnetonka Democrats were Congressional Dist. 3 candidate Adam Jennings and State Senator Steve Cwodzinski who is, arguably, one of Minnesota's most rousing DFL cheerleaders.

Coincidence?

Is it just a coincidence that a week after his dog whistle comments on Muslim "infiltrators" that Johnson won in the GOP? it is my impression that there is no penalty to go racist in the GOP these days.

No Penalty WITHIN the GOP

as it currently stands,...

but likely a large penalty in that anyone who considers themselves reasonable and moderate is NOT going to want to vote for Republicans: the party of racism and Islamophobia.

Any move by Republicans such as Johnson to strengthen support in the current Republican base (those devotes of weasel news and "conservative" talk radio),...

drives away the vast majority of everyone else,...

which leaves our Republican friends in a quandry:

they can't win with only their base,...

but any move to make broader appeals will probably cause them to LOSE the support of "conservative" pundits and, therefore, the support of the base.

Caucuses

1 percent turnout vs 2 percent turnout. Caucuses are a joke and should be eliminated.

Keep caucuses

There's a lot more going on at caucuses--at least the DFL ones--than preference balloting. It's party organizing, volunteer recruitment, raising awareness of issues and candidates, and writing the party platform with direct input from caucus goers, to name a few.

It's government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Available to you for just 90 minutes every two years. Yes, it's a pity more people don't show up, but there is value in them for those who do.

No

Its not government by the people. Its government by those who are privileged enough to attend. If you work nights, have kids, serve in the military, travel for work, are told old or disabled to make it to caucuses, its voter supression. Caucuses are elitist and undemocratic. They need to end.

I wrote a resolution to end them at caucuses

Unfortunately the "born again activists" came out of the woodwork and killed it. But it probably passed somewhere else anyways

And, Your Solution Would Be?

Pat - I disagree, but I'll bite.

You find the caucuses limiting, so what do you replace them with? How do we choose, endorse candidates in Pat Terry's world? Do all candidates go to primaries? Is there any type of party organization at the precinct, senate district, congressional district levels? If so, how are those people gathered together? Do we eschew state conventions? How do parties identify what they stand for, without resolutions from the grassroots?

Or maybe you want some kind of similar system, but how would you gather people together differently? Which working people would you screw, if not those who work nights? Why can't people plan ahead and ask to attend - state law requires accommodations. Do parents with kids never leave their homes to go to movies, attend sporting events, go to lectures? If they do, how do they do it? What prevents them from doing it for caucus night?

Are you going to make people participate? Why do you think a mere 2-3% is bad? It's actually amazing that between the two parties there were 40,000 people this year and over 200,000 people two years ago who'd want to do this?

Politics isn't for everyone - why do you think it should be? Voting should be for everyone, but what's wrong with a small, core group who want to be there,be the ones who help shape the ultimate choices for those who simply want to vote, and nothing more?

First and Last Timer

Made it to my first ever caucus, and maybe I still don't get it, but; we forwarded on 2 delegates, both personal friends of one of the potential Paulsen opponents in the 3rd. They each did a fine job expressing their support for their candidate and the desire to be a delegate.

What seems disconnected is that these two will also play a role in selecting candidates for State Representative, State Senator, Atty. General, Governor etc... as they advance on to the district convention and on from there. It was clear to see that they really only cared about the congressional race and all else is an afterthought.

So 2-3% attend a caucus and an even smaller portion advance on to the subsequent conventions where they are supposed to express the will of the caucus. Simply will not happen for the Precinct I am in: the caucuses seem only to be populist cover for party insiders to advance on to select party conventions where insiders endorse a candidate.

There was a straw poll for for Governor. Why could this not include all of the candidates for all of the offices and still advance on delegates that would feel some responsibility to support the candidates supported in the caucus? This should include means for caucus attenders to see how their delegates subsequently voted.