MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota voters poured into precinct caucuses across the state Tuesday night, casting ballots that will provide an early but critical readout on the state’s wide-open race for governor.
Those caucuses mark the first step in each party’s march toward nominating conventions in June, an early chance for Democratic and Republican voters to get involved in selecting delegates and crafting new party platforms. But the main event was a preference poll that tests each gubernatorial candidate’s support.
Results from that poll were still being tallied by both parties late Tuesday night.
Party chairs hoped a wealth of top-dollar elections — from the race to replace Gov. Mark Dayton to an unexpected special election for former Sen. Al Franken’s seat to four or more competitive congressional campaigns — would energize voters and power heavy turnout at caucus sites across the state.
“For the first time in many years, we truly are going to be at the forefront of national politics in this election cycle in 2018,” Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said.
Republicans are aiming to ride momentum from 2016 — when President Donald Trump nearly became the first GOP nominee to win Minnesota in four decades — to break through and win a statewide race for the first time since 2006. And Democrats are hoping to energize voters to lead a backlash against the president and his party in Minnesota.
But even on a night that could give some gubernatorial candidates a leg up — or push them out of the election — the race for Minnesota’s top job seemed a world away at a Democratic caucus in a south Minneapolis community school, where more than 100 people filed in to vote but largely shied away from taking a stand in the governor’s race. Many, like 36-year-old Steve Jackson, were focused squarely on a four-way race to replace an outgoing state representative.
“My one particular local candidate really brought me here,” Jackson said.
It reinforces that while Republican and Democratic candidates alike are jostling for a lane to their party’s nomination, the results of Tuesday’s straw poll aren’t carved in stone. History shows that poll is rarely indicative of who will win each party’s nomination.
Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert won the polls in both 2010 and 2014 but lost the GOP endorsement both years. Dayton didn’t even put his name on the ballot ahead of his first election in 2010.
“It’s a little bit of a beauty contest,” Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “It is important for the candidates and their campaigns to be able to show their political muscle.”
Voters are beginning to organize for two U.S. Senate races, congressional campaigns and a battle for control of the state House, but the preference poll on Tuesday was only taken for the governor’s race. It’s a wide-open contest to replace Dayton, netting six major Democratic candidates and a still-unsettled field for Republicans.
And early results of the poll showed many voters weren’t ready to make their minds up, with nearly 1 in 5 Republican voters uncommitted and 1 in 7 Democrats undecided.
There’s an extra wrinkle for Republicans that could cloud Tuesday’s voting: Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty may enter the race. Brian McClung, a former top aide and longtime adviser to the two-term governor, confirmed last week that Pawlenty planned to convene a meeting with his inner circle next week to discuss the race. GOP candidates struggled with fundraising in 2017, and Pawlenty’s strong name recognition and fundraising prowess would make him an alluring candidate.
Hennepin County Commissioner and 2014 nominee Jeff Johnson, former party chair Keith Downey, Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani-Stephens, Phillip Parrish and Lance Johnson were on Tuesday’s ballot for Republicans.
Rep. Tim Walz, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Reps. Tina Liebling, Paul Thissen and Erin Murphy were on the ballot at Democratic caucuses.