Caucuses kick off campaign season

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, February 5, 2014

ST. PAUL — No clear front-runners emerged Tuesday night as Minnesota Republicans casted nonbinding votes for their preferred candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.

Thousands of political-party faithful turned out for caucuses across the state, with Republicans choosing from a crowded field in both races and Democrats readying for tough campaigns to keep both offices.

Republicans held straw polls in those top two races, but no candidate had a breakaway performance. And not all of the candidates put equal effort into this early phase of the race.

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Democrats also came together for caucuses but didn’t hold votes, given certainty about their nominees: incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

With three-quarters of the state’s Republican Party chapters reporting, state Sen. Julianne Ortmann had the most support among six candidates running for U.S. Senate, with investor Mike McFadden her closest rival. But 16 percent of voters declared themselves undecided. In the governor’s race, former state Rep. Marty Seifert had an edge over five other candidates, with about 10 percent undecided.

While the straw polls don’t always predict the eventual nominees, they can have a thinning effect by giving a wake-up call to sputtering campaigns. The caucuses tend to draw the most ardent party members. The caucuses were staged by the Republican, Democratic and Independence parties at town halls, schools and community centers around the state.

Republican Steve Zelinsky, a Minnetonka accountant caucusing at Eden Prairie High School, said he felt good about the party’s 2014 prospects after a series of tough election cycles for GOP candidates statewide. He said President Barack Obama’s tenure was galvanizing Republicans.

“I’m energized more than ever,” Zelinsky said. “There’s a bigger need for our message after almost six years of Obama. It’s been a little while since we’ve been able to get it out effectively, but this year I think we will.”

Democrat Tom Kayser, 76, a Minneapolis law firm partner, was at a caucus in St. Paul. He said he was optimistic about the chances of Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken because of the improving economy, even though there have been recent bumps over the nation’s new health care law. But he acknowledged: “There’s no such thing as a sure thing in politics.”

The intrigue at this year’s caucuses was on the Republican side. The GOP has full fields of Senate and gubernatorial candidates, including some who are tying their campaigns to success in the party endorsement process. But a few candidates are eyeing a primary, no matter what, to decide the general election nominees.

Dayton and Franken won their first terms by narrow margins. Neither faces serious competition from a challenger within the party.

The caucuses are a way for campaigns to test their organization by turning out supporters who fight to move on to district and state endorsing conventions. But the straw poll can be deceiving.

In 2010, then-House Minority Leader Seifert scored a commanding caucus night win. But he was overtaken months later by fellow state Rep. Tom Emmer at the state GOP convention. Emmer lost to Dayton in the general election.

Seifert is running for governor again. His Republican rivals this time include businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Rep. Kurt Zellers, state Sen. Dave Thompson and teacher Rob Farnsworth.

Honour has raised and spent the most among Republican candidates so far. But before any results came in, Honour downplayed their meaning.

“Our campaign didn’t devote much in the way of time or resources to tonight’s straw poll, so we go into it with very modest expectations,” his campaign said in a statement.

Even for Dayton, the straw poll didn’t matter last time. He wasn’t even on the preference ballot at the caucus, but he wrested the Democratic nomination in a summer primary. The straw poll did, however, help knock a couple candidates from the race.

Dayton was planning to greet Democrats at a St. Paul school Tuesday night, but a sore hip that he is due to have surgically repaired led to a late cancellation. In his place, newly named running mate Tina Flint Smith made the rounds. She recited positive steps in Dayton’s first term and warned fellow Democrats about the risks of complacency this fall.

“There’s danger of this progress being turned back if we don’t win the governor’s and lose the House,” Smith said.

Besides Ortman and McFadden in the Senate race, the Republican field includes state Rep. Jim Abeler, preacher Harold Shudlick, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, educator Phillip Parrish and farmer Monte Moreno.

McFadden is the best-financed GOP candidate and intends to run in a primary.