Caucus night in Minnesota: 8 key questions, answered

 Republicans David Anderson, left, and Barry Marchaut sit in a GOP caucus
Registered Republicans David Anderson, left, and Barry Marchaut sit in a sparsely attended GOP caucus for Eden Prairie's 10th precinct inside Eden Prairie Senior High School in February 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Tuesday night’s precinct caucuses are the starting line for a candidate selection process that will culminate with November’s vote. 

While most voters won’t show up to a party caucus, those who do will have an outsized voice in setting up the fall ballot.

1) What are precinct caucuses and why are they important?

Every couple of years in the dead of Minnesota winter, the most engaged party members gather in community centers, high school cafeterias or other meeting spots to sound off on issues and candidates. 

In years with major races on the ballot — like this one — there can be a straw poll of contenders from a party.  

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Republicans will conduct a preference ballot for governor. DFLers won’t since only the incumbent Tim Walz put his name forward.

But those who show up for caucuses are also the people eligible to become delegates to party conventions, where in May there will be endorsement votes.

2) What’s the impact of COVID-19 on the major party caucuses this year?

Republicans in the more than 4,000 precincts will gather as they have in the past — in person. 

DFLers will mostly conduct their business in what they’re calling “contactless” fashion. That means dropping off forms or sending them in by email. That’s happening in about 70 percent of precincts while the rest, largely in greater Minnesota, will be held in person. Even then, there will be COVID-19 precautions such as masking and proof of vaccination or a negative test required.

The two major parties built around marijuana legalization are also opting to conduct a lot of their business online.

Republicans gather for the caucus at Eden Prairie High School in February 2014.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file 2014

3) Where can I find my caucus?

The major party websites will have a caucus locator on them:

Or you can type a home address into a locator maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office.

4) Why has there been recent controversy around eligibility for caucus attendees on the DFL side?

For the first time, DFLers will allow noncitizens and felons still on probation to fully participate in caucuses. They’re not eligible to vote in regular elections.

The DFL Party is leaning on a court decision that distinguishes between party activities and elections, although it didn’t explicitly open the door to caucus and conventions for people ineligible to vote.

“At the end of the day, this is about our party’s rights under the First Amendment, under freedom of association to determine who gets to participate in our party process,” state DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said Monday.

But there’s a state law that lumps caucus eligibility with broader voter eligibility. Republicans are accusing DFLers of thumbing their nose at the law. Even DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon isn’t on board with his party’s plan.

5) How have the candidates, particularly the Republicans running for governor, approached the caucus run-up?

They are spending considerable time and money focusing on what’s a relatively narrow universe of regular caucus attendees or newcomers they might convince to get involved. They’re traveling the state to attend party forums or bump elbows in cafes, even if it’s not that many people in attendance.

For Republicans, the endorsement matters. Every endorsed gubernatorial candidate has won the nomination for the past six elections, often fending off big-time primary challengers in the process.

Here’s who is running right now: 

  • State Sen. Michelle Benson

  • State Sen. Paul Gazelka

  • Former state Sen. Scott Jensen

  • Businessman and think tank leader Kendall Qualls

  • Lexington, Minn., Mayor Mike Murphy

  • Dermatologist Neil Shah

  • Ely, Minn., engineer Scott Magie

  • Perennial candidate Bob Carney

And on Tuesday former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek announced he's running too.

All of the best-known candidates say they’ll abide by the endorsement and leave the race if somebody else gets it.

6) Will the caucuses give us much information about who the Republican nominee will be?

With this many candidates, there probably won’t be one who breaks from the pack at this stage. But it’ll definitely separate the contenders from the pretenders. 

“That’ll be really telling who comes out as the winner in that straw poll,” Deputy Republican Party Chair Donna Bergstrom said Monday.

Often the caucuses do more to knock weaker candidates out than put somebody on a glide path.

Another key piece of information emerges Tuesday: Fundraising reports from 2021 come out Tuesday morning. It’ll give a peek at who is resonating with donors during their time in the race. 

7) Is the GOP field for governor set?

Maybe not. 

It’s hard for candidates to play catchup if they wait too long after the caucus. Stanek announced Tuesday he's running and his background could matter in a campaign where public safety is a prominent issue.

8) Where does the process of picking candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and more go next?

The next stop is local party conventions. The pool of state convention delegates emerges from those. All three races have multiple Republican candidates vying to be the ones to take on DFL incumbents in November.

Candidate filing starts in May ahead of an August primary. The general election is on Nov. 8.