Attendance of tonight's precinct caucuses isn't expected to match 2008's record turnout, but Republican leaders expect to see an increase in attendance among one group -- the Tea Party.
For months, conservative Tea Party groups have been criticizing the state and federal government for spending too much and violating the constitution, and Republicans hope to harness their anger this fall.
On a recent afternoon, about 100 people gathered in the Great Northern Depot in Princeton for a gubernatorial forum. Before the meeting started, the audience engaged in small talk. Signs questioning global warming and praising conservative radio outside the building. Dozens of American flags were draped inside the building.
"I actually think that this is historic for Princeton," said Sue Bican, a member of the Mille Lacs Tea Party. "I don't believe that Princeton has ever hosted six gubernatorial candidates."
Bican welcomed the audience and five candidates - four Republicans and one from the Constitution Party.
After saying a prayer and the pledge of allegiance, Bican told the group of mostly middle-aged Minnesotans that the group's main focus is getting the government refocused on the constitution.
"The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders as heirs to the republic to claim our rights and duties that preserve our legacy and our own," she said.
Clyde Moldenhauer of Princeton said he started coming to Tea Party meetings because he's upset with the direction of the country.
"There's more and more police...more enforcements that have been added that don't really line up with the constitution, and it seems like it's leading up more and more to a police state," Moldenhauer said.
A growing bloc of voters
Moldenhauer said he doesn't plan to go to his precinct caucus, but Tea Party activists expect many who share his views to turn out this year. Mike Puffer, who also helped found the Mille Lacs Tea Party, said many are getting frustrated with the government. He cited the bank bailouts as one motivating factor.
"There's always been an underlying, I don't want to say anger, but an underlying passion that 'This is not right.' But there was a feeling that there's not enough of us to be labeled as radicals or something else," Puffer said.
Puffer said it's difficult to define the Tea Party movement because it's not a monolithic block. Some push a more literal interpretation of the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions. Others decry spending. Others support specific items like legalizing marijuana, expanding gun rights or banning abortion.
"The Tea Party movement has just given people a voice to speak out and also to bring in candidates and other people and grill them and ask them 'What do you stand for? and 'If you're not going to hold to those truths, what's the penalty for you?" Puffer said.
State Republican chair Tony Sutton says he expects to see more Tea Party members attend precinct caucuses and eventually become delegates to the state party convention in April. Sutton said they're motivated by the stimulus package, the health care overhaul bill and the bank bailouts, and he said Republican candidates better hear their concerns and deliver.
"If we are the beneficiaries of this dissatisfaction with what's going on in Washington and people vote us into the office, we better make darn sure that we are true to our principles or we're going to go the way of the Whig Party," Sutton said.
Expert offers warning to GOP
But there could be a danger for Republicans if they focus too much on the Tea Party movement. Stacy Hunter-Hecht, a political science professor at Bethel College said the Tea Party is one of the most active politically groups right now and that the state caucus system allows for a minority group to exercise tremendous power--if they are vocal enough. She said candidates have to be careful not to toe the partisan line too closely.
"Certainly in the nominating conventions, we're going to hear more partisan rhetoric and more pitched rhetoric than we would once these guys and gals are running for statewide office, but they'll be liable for what they say," she said.
Hecht predicts that whoever wins the GOP endorsement will continue to address the concerns of party activists, but will also shape their message to appear more appealing to middle of the road voters.