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Minnesota isn’t likely to see many hotly contested primaries for statewide office. That’s exactly the way the parties want it.

“The value is not only to the candidates themselves but to the party writ large, to unify behind a candidate as early as possible and save our resources for a general election campaign,” says DFL Chair Ken Martin. 

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz filing for reelection on May 26.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz filing for reelection on May 26.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

With one notable exception, the chairs of the Minnesota DFL and Republican parties are getting exactly what they’ve been dreaming of for the 2022 election: There will be no contested primaries for statewide executive offices.

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and Auditor Julie Blaha will face token opposition at best in the Aug. 9 DFL primary.

And in what was a much-more-difficult task — given that Republicans have no incumbents — the Minnesota GOP has also mostly succeeded in keeping their convention-endorsed candidates free from primary opponents.

Despite GOP leadership spending the last two weeks discouraging him from running, former attorney general nominee Doug Wardlow filed for attorney general Tuesday morning. Former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek could still file for governor by 5 p.m. Tuesday, when the election filing period closes. The GOP’s endorsed candidates are Scott Jensen for governor, Jim Schultz for attorney general, Kim Crockett for secretary of state and Ryan Wilson for auditor. 

A primary function of the parties

The day before the DFL endorsement process began with its February precinct caucuses, party Chair Ken Martin said a goal of the party is to make sure primaries don’t matter. “Endorsements are the earliest opportunity for the party to unify,” Martin said. “You don’t have to engage in a costly primary that essentially drags out into the summer and early fall, distracting you from efforts to take on Republican candidates directly.

“The value is not only to the candidates themselves but to the party writ large, to unify behind a candidate as early as possible and save our resources for a general election campaign,” Martin said. 

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To that end, both parties pressure candidates who want endorsements to pledge not to run if a rival is endorsed. “What’s the point of having caucuses and empowering the grassroots if we’re not going to put teeth behind it?” Martin said.”I’ll leave it to others to decide whether primaries are a good thing or a bad thing but I personally strategically believe we should unify as soon as possible behind our endorsed candidate.”

At the state GOP convention in Rochester in May, the importance of rendering endorsements for statewide offices was cited by party chair David Hann in lobbying delegates to adopt an electronic voting system instead of paper ballots — despite an aversion among some in the GOP to the electronic system, a carryover of the baseless claim of fraud in the 2020 election. 

“Endorsing statewide candidates is one of the primary functions of the state party,” Hann said. “It is the reason above all others that explains why we are here today. Leaving this convention without endorsed candidates calls into question the value of our endorsement process itself and puts our election efforts at considerable risk of failure.”

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As with the DFL, Republican party leaders demand pledges from candidates. Only if no one receives the 60 percent support needed for endorsement at the convention can candidates move to the primary and stay in the good graces of the party.

In Rochester, convention managers played a video that warned losing GOP candidates not to run in August. “If the endorsed candidate is challenged in the August primary election, that candidate will spend three months battling other Republicans with only three months to campaign against the DFL candidate,” the narrator said. “Unendorsed candidates cut the Republican campaign against the Democrats in half. Let’s choose to honor our endorsement. Let’s choose to reject a primary election contest. Let’s choose to win in November and change the course of our state.”

But in two races, candidates did not seek the endorsement and therefore made no pledge not to run: Stanek for governor and Dennis Smith for attorney general. After losing his bid for the GOP endorsement for attorney general, however, Wardlow announced he would break the pledge and run anyway. At first, Wardlow said it was because there was already going to be a contested primary with Smith facing Schultz. But Smith has since announced he would not run.

Since the convention, Warlow has faced both condemnation for his reversal and pressure from party leaders. “We all agreed to this process,” Jensen tweeted in response to Warlow’s announcement. “The battles were hard, but one’s word has to be golden if Republicans are to convince everyday Minnesotans we can be trusted with their vote. I ask Mr. Wardlow, please do not do this. It’s time to get behind Jim Schultz.”

GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, right, holding a rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol on May 23.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, right, holding a rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol on May 23.

A very different electorate

The difference between letting caucuses and conventions decide a party’s nominees and letting primary voters do so is in the numbers. Ultimately, 1,344 delegates among the 2,200 in attendance at the Rochester convention decided that Jensen would be the candidate. In 2018, however, when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty bucked the convention and ran against endorsed GOP candidate Jeff Johnson, 320,914 primary voters took part in the decision.

Johnson won anyway, a common end for non-endorsed candidates in GOP primaries, where endorsed candidates have won every statewide primary for 28 years.

That same year, Walz sought the DFL endorsement but said he would run in the primary either way. That decision could have factored into him eventually losing the endorsement to Erin Murphy, who seemed ready to cross the 60 percent threshold of delegate votes when Walz withdrew.

“The best news is that Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center this weekend was full of the energy we need to win and we’re excited for 500,000 DFLers to have their voices heard,” Walz told his delegates in a rally outside the hall four years ago. In that 2018 primary that Walz won, 583,735 voters cast a DFL ballot.

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With no contested races for statewide office on the DFL side of the primary ballot in 2022, turnout will not be as high. If the GOP succeeds in keeping Stanek and Wardlow out of the primary, turnout will likely suffer there as well.

Yet Democrats will still have some primary challenges of endorsed incumbent members of Congress. In the 4th Congressional District, representing much of the east metro, including St. Paul, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum will face Amane Badhasso. In the 5th Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar will face Don Samuels.