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Primary results a warning about trying to predict 2018 politics

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A voter fills out her primary ballot.
A voter fills out her primary ballot at the Ramsey County Elections Plato Building in St. Paul, Minn. on Aug. 13, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Minnesota's unpredictable election year defied predictions yet again Tuesday. 

On the Republican side of the race for governor voters showed the party's endorsement still has plenty of power, overwhelmingly backing endorsed candidate, Jeff Johnson, over the better-funded and better-known former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Gov. Mark Dayton is not running for a third term.

On the DFL side, primary voters rejected the party's endorsed candidate, Erin Murphy, as well as Attorney General Lori Swanson and instead picked U.S. Rep. Tim Walz to represent them on the November ballot.

Swanson, who had led in some polls released publicly before the vote, came in third and was the first candidate to concede the race Tuesday night.

Jeff Johnson
Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, center, is greeted by his supporters after returning to the watch party, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in Plymouth, Minn.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP

"Part of the American democracy is that we have elections, and we respect elections, and at the end of the primary we get together and support the winner of that primary," Swanson said Tuesday evening from her campaign party at Jax Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis. "I ask all of us here to support Tim Walz to be the next governor of the state of Minnesota."

Even if predicting the outcome is unclear, one thing is not: Voters are fired up. By the end of business early Wednesday morning, more than 902,000 Minnesotans turned out to vote in the governor's race, the highest level since the mid 1990s.

For some perspective, in 2010, the last time there was an open governor's seat, about 16 percent of registered voters showed up for primaries, including 443,137 who voted in the Democratic race and 130,408 who voted for Republicans.

Murphy, whose campaign had worked to mobilize new Democratic voters this election, was happy that so many people voted for the first time. 

"Minnesotans came out in force for this historic primary, energized by a new kind of politics that puts people at the center, that digs in on the toughest issues we face," she said after losing the race.

But even in massive numbers, voters didn't send one message.

Murphy, as well as Swanson, had the opportunity to make history in being the first female nominee for governor. And Murphy's ticket was the first ever all-female ticket with her running mate, state Rep. Erin Maye Quade. But neither campaign gained enough traction with voters, despite calls for 2018 to be the "Year of the Woman."

Ilhan Omar celebrates onstage with her children after her primary victory.
Ilhan Omar celebrates onstage with her children after her victory in the 5th congressional district primary race at the Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn. on Aug. 14, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Meanwhile, in another race, voters did likely make history. State Rep. Ilhan Omar handily won a four-way DFL primary to succeed U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in Minnesota's 5th District. A refugee who came to Minnesota as a child, Omar will likely be the first-ever Somali American lawmaker elected to Congress. She's almost guaranteed a place in Congress in the 5th District, where the voters overwhelmingly back Democrats.

"I talked about what my win would have meant for that 8-year-old girl in that refugee camp, and today, today I still think about her and I think about the kind of hope and optimism all of those 8-year-olds around the country and world get from seeing your beautiful faces elect and believe in someone like me," she said after her victory.

Peggy Flanagan, Walz' running mate, gives a victory speech.
Peggy Flanagan, Walz' running mate, gives a victory speech during an election party at Carpenters Local 322 in St. Paul, Minn., after it was announced that she and her running mate Tim Walz had won the DFL primary for governor, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Peggy Flanagan, who is the DFL nominee for lieutenant governor alongside Walz, noted another way this election will make history: both lieutenant governor candidates are Native American women. Donna Bergstrom, Johnson's running mate, is a member of the Red Lake Nation, while Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. A Native American man or woman has never been elected statewide in Minnesota.

"So Donna Bergstrom? Here we go, sister," Flanagan said Tuesday evening.

Other candidates were also left struggling to figure out what, exactly, Tuesday's results meant.

Pawlenty was the presumptive front-runner in the Republican primary after serving two terms in the office and out raising Johnson by nearly $2 million. He spent that money on two ads, one attacking Johnson, but it wasn't enough to beat the endorsed candidate. He was also the presumed winner by Democratic groups, which have already sunk more than $2 million attacking Pawlenty in ads.

He mused that the Republican Party has changed since he was governor, and he doesn't exactly fit in anymore.

Tim Pawlenty supporters check results at his election night gathering.
Tim Pawlenty supporters check early results at his election night gathering at Granite City Food and Brewery, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in Eagan, Minn.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

"I think the Republican Party has shifted. It is the era of Trump and I am just not a Trump-like politician," he said. "We knew the ground had shifted but we thought there was still a reservoir of support from what I call Pawlenty supporters that we could count on to win this race."

The candidates who did win Tuesday night are now left with the burden of figuring it all out. In the governor's race, the stakes are high.

For Republicans, winning the governor's office would likely mean total control of state government, given their present hold on both legislative chambers. For Democrats, keeping the governor's mansion would mean having a critical say in how future state budgets are fashioned, allow them to hold back significant rewrites of abortion and labor union laws, and guarantee the party a seat at the table when new political boundaries are drawn after the 2020 census.

So, what do voters want to hear in a year where they are clearly energized?

Johnson, who is making his second run at the governor's office after losing to Dayton in 2014, is already trying to lay out clear contrasts with Walz. He hopes the state that nearly elected Donald Trump in 2016 is open to his message of smaller government and draining the St. Paul swamp.

Walz greets supporters before a victory speech during a primary party.
Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz greets supporters before giving a victory speech during an election party at Carpenters Local 322 in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018.
Tom Baker for MPR News

"The contrast with Tim Walz could not be more stark," he said after his victory. "His vision for the future is to dramatically grow government, raise taxes, ignore the rule of law, give government control of everyone's healthcare and further stifle Minnesotans' pursuit of the American Dream."

Walz, a rural Democrat who has been touting a message of "one Minnesota," and expecting to run against Pawlenty, said his plans won't change.

"It didn't matter who they picked on the other side because the divisive message will stay the same," he said.

Walz, a veteran and a former high school social studies teacher, said he will stick to his progressive values in his messaging.

"This veteran walks proudly in my progressive values," he said.  "This teacher stands up to bullies."