The Minnesota Question Emerges: Who is Dayton’s Heir?

Caucuses paint a picture as major candidates emerge for governor

Andy Stec, Senior Columnist

While the Twin Cities hummed with a medley of excited and nervous anticipation of the Super Bowl, Minnesotans prepared for the highly anticipated election year. For residents of the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, this meant that Democrats and Republicans gathered (in Roseville High School and Como Park Elementary, respectively) on February 6 to have their voices heard on the officials, platforms, and values espoused of their parties moving into election season.

Minnesota is one of thirteen states that make use of precinct caucuses: the first in a series of meetings where residents may voice support of party candidates, select delegates to represent the state party at the federal level, and to set state party platforms. In addition to the two major parties, the Legal Cannabis Now Party held a pre-election meeting at Minneapolis’ Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, the Independence Party held a series of in-person caucuses across the metro and both the Green and Libertarian Parties neglected to schedule caucuses entirely.

This preliminary round of meetings was seen as noticeably important this year for the plethora of positions on the table, with the governorship, two U.S Senate seats, three statewide constitutional offices, and the entirety of the Minnesota House on the ballot come autumn. Voting in precinct caucus ‘preference polls’ determine which candidates appear on ballots and generally gauge each candidate’s support. For the two major parties, heavy emphasis was placed on those pursuing Governor Mark Dayton’s soon-to-be empty office.

Of the DFL a number of big names emerged: State Rep. Tina Liebling, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, State Rep. Paul Thissen, U.S Rep. Tim Walz, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and State Rep. Erin Murphy. When results came in over the next few days, Thissen withdrew from the race — and Coleman stepped down a week later. With 30% of the vote Tim Walz seems poised as the party favorite, with Rebecca Otto rounding out in second with 20%.

On the other side of the aisle, the GOP tested the waters for the governorship as well: former State GOP Party Chairman Keith Downey, Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and local teacher Phillip Parrish were all listed on the straw poll. Johnson rose as the clear favorite with 45% of the vote, with Downey trailing at a distant 15%. Earlier in the month, former GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty evoked a distant murmur when he quit his job at a Wall Street lobbying firm and called for a February 12 meeting of conservative donors. While Governor Pawlenty has publically denied running for the state’s open senate seats, he has remained quiet on the prospect of returning for his old job. If he did run in the fall, Pawlenty would be facing voters who were students during his tenure — which notably included massive cuts to Minnesota education in unsuccessful efforts to balance the budget. In any regard, GOP favorite Jeff Johnson, who was the party’s nominee in the previous 2014 gubernatorial election against Mark Dayton, has already gained the race’s first national endorsement from Senator Marco Rubio.

Turnout for the February 6 precinct caucuses painted a telling narrative for the state’s oncoming elections. The DFL reported 27,447 residents taking part in their caucuses across the state, up by 88% from the last caucuses in 2014. State Republicans, on the other hand, reported their lowest-recorded turnout with 10,909 residents showing up — down 29% from the 2014 midterm caucuses. It seems likely, as Democratic officials have suggested, that both Trump and the competitiveness of the 2018 elections bolstered a higher liberal turnout. The Minnesota State Legislature is currently held by Republicans, and this fall will give the party its first shot in years at securing full control of the state government.

On that note, it is imperative that liberal voters across the state not let these numbers lull them into election apathy or disinterest, as is so often the problem with good early turnout numbers. The results of the caucus preference poll are not binding; both party candidates still have to earn their official endorsements at their respective conventions over the summer, and must then perform well in the August primaries, all before reaching the Minnesota general election in the fall.

For liberals in Minnesota, it seems a prevalent point of pride that their state remained a Democratic bastion in the midwest Republican sweep of 2016. This is correlative to a general misplaced consensus that Minnesota is a ‘blue’ state – when the reality reflects more purple. Our state maintains a sharp partisan geographic divide: Clinton grasped hold of our electoral votes by a measly 1.5% over Trump in 2016. She won nine of Minnesota’s eighty-seven counties, and only two of those counties were by a margin over 60%. It is not a distant memory in the slightest when last Minnesota and Wisconsin were considered twins in the form of their Republican state governments, only to split with the election of Democrat Governor Mark Dayton. For a comparison at how a liberal state government has treated Minnesotans in relation to what a conservative one would, it is only necessary to look across our eastern border.