In upcoming Minnesota caucuses, light turnout, lack of mystery expected

Downey, Jenkins, Martin
From left to right: Republican Party Chair Keith Downey, Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins, and DFL Chairman Ken Martin.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

Minnesotans will caucus across the state Tuesday night to talk politics and chat up their favorite candidates. Intrigue, though may be in short supply.

With no presidential race on the November ballot, and Democrats planning to return Al Franken to the U.S. Senate and Mark Dayton to the governor's office, there won't be much mystery -- at least for the DFL. Turnout across the state is expected to be light.

Republicans have more at stake this year. Those GOP caucus goers will vote in non-binding straw polls to express their preferences in the Senate and governor's races. Several GOP candidates, however, have already said they'll challenge the endorsed candidate in a primary election if they fail to win the party endorsement.

Still, candidates can use the caucuses to test their strength, said Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey.

"Can they get the people to show up and vote for them in the straw poll?" he asked. "Can they get people to show up and become delegates to the next level where the endorsements will occur?"

Some of those who attend caucuses Tuesday night will eventually end up as delegates to the parties' state conventions in the spring, where they will endorse candidates for senate and governor.

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University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said candidates' willingness to stay in the race even if the party faithful don't choose them diminishes the importance of the caucuses and conventions.

Scott Honour
Investment banker Scott Honour is trying to appeal to party insiders who will cast endorsement votes at the state GOP convention. But Honour is also preparing for a primary campaign.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

"Maybe the biggest question in 2014 is whether the Republican Party's caucus system and the resulting endorsing process results in the candidates who will be running against Al Franken and against Mark Dayton," Jacobs said. "There are a lot of folks who are saying, in the business community and in the donor world for the Republicans that they're now ready to go to the primary."

Jacobs said that's because establishment Republicans are fed up with the far-right tea party and what's called the liberty wing of the party and their support for candidates who can't win in a general election: Think Kurt Bills and his 35 percentage point loss two years ago to Democratic incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Jake Duesenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, said he thinks tea-partiers will be out in force at the GOP caucuses. He hopes many will be elected convention delegates so they can go on to endorse candidates.

"I think we actually have the greatest chance of a grass roots movement that will get people out to the caucus," Duesenberg said. "Our people are really fired up about a wide range of issues but guns, and the bullying bill and taxes are really motivating the tea party liberty base."

In the 2nd Congressional District, that tea party base has launched an endorsement challenge to six-term Republican Rep. John Kline. They're angry with Kline for voting to raise the debt ceiling and for supporting national security legislation that they say violates civil liberties.

Electing delegates at the caucuses will be critical, said Marianne Stebbins, who chaired Minnesota's Tea Party heavy contingent to the Republican National Convention in 2012 and is managing David Gerson's campaign against Kline.

"I don't want to make any predictions, but, the campaign team has been working hard to identify supporters and then to turn those people out to caucuses so we are hopeful," Stebbins said.

"David Gerson represents what the Republican Party stands for."

Election years like 2014 when there is no presidential race typically present Minnesota Republicans with their best chances to win elections because of low DFL turnout.

In the last off-year election four years ago Republicans won control of the state House and Senate and defeated longtime 8th District Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar.

Keeping Democrats engaged will be critical to getting Dayton and Franken re-elected and to holding onto control of the Minnesota House, said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

"My biggest fear in this election year is not the Republicans, it's complacency on the part of Democrats -- people resting on their laurels, taking it for granted what we've been able to accomplish here in Minnesota and not showing up not just for precinct caucuses but also for the November" election, he said. "We do have to work hard."

Along with traditional caucuses, the Minnesota Independence Party is also holding live caucus meetings online.

Find a caucus

Use the Minnesota Secretary of State's caucus finder to search for Tuesday night caucus sites by zip code or county.