4 Minnesota governor candidates emerge as favorites at caucuses

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two Republicans and two Democrats established themselves as favorites for party backing in the Minnesota race for governor with their showings in precinct caucus polls Tuesday night.

State Rep. Marty Seifert coasted to victory in the GOP’s nonbinding straw poll by attracting 50 percent of the vote, though Rep. Tom Emmer pulled in nearly 40 percent. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher were the clear leaders among Democrats.

The caucuses, which mainly draw party faithful, are the first step in the process to endorse candidates. They come nine months before a new governor will be elected to replace departing Republican Tim Pawlenty.

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Turnout at some sites was much lighter than in 2008, when the presidential race led to record attendance. Buttons and other visible signs of candidate support were scarce.

With 95 percent of Republican precincts reporting, Seifert racked up 50 percent of the vote and was declared the winner of the seven-person race by the Republican Party of Minnesota early Wednesday.

Emmer was the only other candidate in double digits, taking in 39.5 percent of the vote.

Seifert reveled in the results but noted the more decisive party gatherings in coming weeks and months.

“We don’t want to slow down or lose momentum,” Seifert said.

Among Democrats, Ryback had nearly 22 percent of the vote and Kelliher had 20 percent as of early Wednesday with 77 percent of precincts reporting. But more than 14 percent of Democratic voters chose “uncommitted.”

“We think that this result brings some clarity to the race,” said Kelliher, of Minneapolis. “It’s pretty clear from the results we’re tracking that I have broad support throughout the state from county to county.”

Rybak, who entered the race in November after winning a new mayoral term, said probable convention delegates were looking for signals of who would emerge from a bulky pack.

“Tonight it’s clear that two candidates are the top choice,” he said before pivoting to his outsider message. “We can pick between status quo at the Capitol and change that brings results.”

In Anoka, the “uncommitted” option was the easy winner in two of the biggest Democratic precincts.

Voters like nurse Eileen Rathbun helped explain the trend. Entering the caucus, she was having trouble choosing among 14 candidates from her party.

Rathbun ruled out Rybak and wasn’t high on Kelliher, two candidates who have vowed to give up the race without the party’s endorsement. Rathbun’s union favored Minneapolis Rep. Paul Thissen, but she wasn’t ready to commit.

“I’m going to start paying a little more attention to what they say,” Rathbun said.

For both parties, the caucus was a key step. Participants had the chance to move on to smaller political gatherings and compete to become delegates to state endorsing conventions in April.

“This is the time when the campaigns will focus on the decision makers,” said Democratic candidate Steve Kelley, a former suburban state senator who was heading to northwestern Minnesota to campaign. “Before tonight, we’ve had to focus on who we think the decision makers will be.”

The race will continue into August for the Democrats, with the party’s endorsed candidate expected to face former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, ex-House Rep. Matt Entenza and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner in a primary election.

Republicans will come to a quicker decision because their leading contenders say they won’t go forward without party endorsement.

At a GOP caucus in Bloomington, voter Lew Coffey was keeping his choice close to his vest. But he felt good about his party’s prospects of holding the governor’s office, the only statewide office they control.

“Given the national climate I think there’s a huge tailwind behind the Republican Party and we need to take advantage of that,” Coffey said.

Many Republicans at a Bloomington high school said they were driven to attend by what they saw as wayward policies in Washington, not necessarily the top race back home.

For their part, the candidates covered as much ground as they could. For example, Democratic Rep. Tom Rukavina from northeastern Minnesota worked crowds in southern cities, while Seifert, who’s from western Minnesota, prowled for support in the Twin Cities suburbs.

The Republican field is rounded out by state Sen. David Hann, former state Rep. Bill Haas, environmental activist Leslie Davis, entrepreneur Bob Carney, contractor Philip Herwig and businessman Peter Roess.

Democrats also had to choose among state Sen. Tom Bakk, state Sen. John Marty, artist Ole Savior, frequent candidate Felix Montez and one-time congressional candidates Scott Raskiewicz and Peter Idusogie.

Members of Minnesota’s third major party, the Independence Party, also had a full slate. The party that former Gov. Jesse Ventura belonged to has five candidates: public relations executive Tom Horner, retired Army officer Joe Repya, publisher Rob Hahn, retired businessman John Uldrich and frequent candidate Rahn Workcuff.