8 things to watch on primary night

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People from across Minnesota are heading to the polls today to determine the party nominees for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and other constitutional offices, and the Minnesota House.

Because there are several competitive primary battles in both parties, we've created a handy checklist of things to watch for.

1.) Does anyone dominate in the GOP race for governor?

There are four candidates vying to win the GOP nomination for governor. Since all four largely agree on many issues, they’ve been using their backgrounds and life experience to highlight their differences.

No one knows who is going to win on Tuesday. The candidates, their staffers and outside observers say there’s a pathway to victory for each of the four.

Jeff Johnson has the party endorsement. Scott Honour is the business outsider who has spent the most on the race. Kurt Zellers is a former Minnesota House Speaker who may have the best name recognition.  Marty Seifert has rural roots.  Turnout is expected to be light, and there doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm for any of the candidates.

Tip: Several experts say Republican primary voters make up their minds late. That’s why Zellers and Honour have been making a last minute push with TV ads and media appearances.

2.) Does the endorsement still matter for Republicans?

Republicans have traditionally held the party endorsement as almost sacred. Run against the endorsed candidate and the party will spend unlimited resources to defeat you. But this year, three candidates for governor opted to not obey the will of roughly 2,000 Republican Party delegates and instead ran in the primary.

Republican Party Chair Keith Downey and party leaders have been working to turn out the vote for Johnson. Expect party activists to criticize Downey for not doing enough if Johnson fails to win the nomination. The party reported a strong cash balance in its last campaign report.

Tip: Watch the returns in Hennepin County. Johnson says he needs a strong showing at home to win.

3.) Will Matt Entenza unseat Rebecca Otto in the DFL race for State Auditor?

Former Minnesota House Minority Leader Matt Entenza surprised many Democrats when he decided to challenge incumbent Rebecca Otto in the race for State Auditor.

Entenza also upset many party leaders (including DFL Party Chair Ken Martin) by filing that challenge just 15 minutes before filings closed (and after Democrats already endorsed Otto). Entenza has spent more than $500,000 of his own money on TV ads and campaign mailings. He has focused his criticism on what he says were Otto’s votes in favor of a voter ID requirement and same-sex marriage during her time in the Minnesota House in 2003 and 2004.

Otto has countered that she worked to defeat the constitutional amendments that were put on the ballot in 2012. She has also criticized Entenza’s spending on the race. She’s hoping the DFL Party endorsement will pull her through. But she also has to watch how a certain part of the state reacts to her campaign.

Tip: Entenza needs to do well on the Iron Range and in new immigrant communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul to win. Shaky support in any of those areas could mean a rough night for the former House minority leader.

4.) Turnout tells the tale

Minnesota is known for turning out a high number of voters in the November election. But there isn't as much enthusiasm for the primary. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie says he expects between 10 and 15 percent of eligible voters to cast ballots on Tuesday.

Officials representing several of the campaigns for governor say they expect a low turnout (anywhere from 90,000 to 150,000 Republican voters). Those figures matter as the campaigns map their strategies to pick up the nomination.

If a large number of Republicans vote, that could be good news for Honour. He has been running as a political outsider and has spent the most on TV ads in the race.

A low turnout affair helps Johnson (party endorsement) and Seifert (who has been spending a lot of time working rural voters).

Zellers has been running a campaign that focuses on identifying and turning out their key supporters. His "secret sauce strategy" could work in a field where every candidate has been using a shotgun approach to round up votes.

Tip: Will more DFLers turn out for a State Auditor race than Republicans turn out for a contested gubernatorial primary? If so, Republicans could have a hard time making the case that they have momentum heading into November.

5.) Does Kahn hold off a challenge from a DFL upstart?

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is facing a stiff political challenge from Minneapolis School Board member Mohamud Noor in House District 60B.

Noor has been banking on solid support from the Somali community in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood to help him win. Kahn has served in the Legislature since 1972 and is hoping support from the voter rich neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota will help her win. This race is being watched by plenty of Democrats.

Tip: Watch to see what transpires after a winner is declared. Democrats have been treading carefully around a race that has gotten mean and nasty. The DFL Party has relied on Somali voters to help them win competitive, statewide elections. Republicans will work to undercut that work if Kahn wins the primary.

6.) Do Christian conservatives strike back?

The Minnesota Family Council and other Christian conservatives have suffered a few setbacks since the 2012 election. Their push to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was defeated in 2012 and the voter backlash over the amendment helped Democrats win control of the Minnesota Legislature.

Six months later, the Legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Since then, The Family Council has targeted some of the lawmakers who voted for that bill. In February, state Rep. David Fitzsimmons dropped his bid for re-election after it became clear he was going to lose his endorsement battle with a candidate who ripped his vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

On Tuesday, the Family Council may score another victory if Sheila Kihne defeats state Rep. Jenifer Loon in Eden Prairie-based House District 48B.

The race has garnered plenty of attention from outside groups. The Family Council has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the race. The House Republican Caucus and business groups (backed in part by supporters of same-sex marriage) have spent heavily on Loon’s behalf.

Tip: The Republican candidates for governor say they aren’t going to push social issues if they’re elected. A strong showing by Christian conservatives in certain districts could force them to be more vocal about those issues as the general election looms.

7.)  Does the Iron Range rebuke Otto?

State Auditor Rebecca Otto has had a few struggles among supporters of mining in northeastern Minnesota. Drive along busy roads on the Iron Range and you’re certain to see a few “Dump Otto” signs. Those signs were printed after Otto voted against a plan to issue mineral leases in northern Minnesota.

The Iron Range has historically been a DFL stronghold but only if the candidate supports their issues. Heavy turnout on the range could be a problem for Otto’s campaign.

Tip: If Entenza wins support on the Iron Range, other Democrats like Mark Dayton and Al Franken may have to stake out a stronger stance on mining to ensure support in November. Republicans have been working this issue to wedge Democrats who need support from both the Iron Range and environmentalists to win statewide.

8.) Does Abeler disable McFadden’s machine?

Despite facing several candidates on Tuesday, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden has spent little time vying to win the Republican primary. Since his surprising endorsement win in May, McFadden has spent most of his time targeting DFL Sen. Al Franken. He ducked a debate featuring fellow Republicans Jim Abeler and David Carlson. He also declined to engage his opponents in the race.

Abeler is a long-time state Representative who has pockets of support across the state. If he fares well, it could show that McFadden has some work to do in shoring up his GOP base.

Tip:  McFadden has little to worry about if he brings in more than 60 percent of the vote.

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