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Johnson, Walz win governor caucus polls, but is Pawlenty running?

This precinct caucus in East Grand Forks, Minn., attracted far fewer Democrats than two years ago, when records were set statewide. Sam Easter / Forum News Service1 / 3
This Red Wing, Minn., precinct caucus on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, had better attendance than some around Minnesota. Sarah Hansen / Forum News Service2 / 3
A St. Paul Park, Minn., Democratic precinct caucus discusses resolutions on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Katie Nelson / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL -- Second-time Minnesota governor candidate Jeff Johnson easily won a Tuesday, Feb. 6 straw poll, but could face a bigger obstacle in coming weeks: Tim Pawlenty.

With all votes tallied from Republican precinct caucuses throughout Minnesota, Johnson had 45 percent of the vote of nearly 11,000 caucus attendees.

Pawlenty, a Republican and former two-term governor, still is deciding if he will run for the office again and plans a meeting with key party members next week.

The non-binding Republican poll showed former Republican state Chairman Keith Downey with 15 percent and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and teacher Phillip Parrish with 12 percent each. Nearly 16 percent of GOP caucus goers had not decided on a candidate.

Johnson lost to Gov. Mark Dayton in the 2014 governor's race.

With two-thirds of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party precincts reporting, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was far out front with 31 percent of the nearly 22,000 votes that had been counted. State Auditor Rebecca Otto held a solid second place with 21 percent, followed by state Rep. Erin Murphy, 13 percent; former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, 12 percent; state Rep. Tina Liebling, 6 percent, and state Rep. Paul Thissen, 4 percent. Others were undecided.

Attendance in many precincts was far below records set two years ago.

"If there is a 'message' from the voters at DFL/GOP caucuses tonight it is this: The overwhelming number of Minnesota voters want a new way of choosing their party’s nominees and want to scrap the caucuses," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, tweeted. "Turnout on both sides is insanely low!"

Turnout at both Clay County caucuses was slim.

“I think on both sides, Republicans and speaking for the Democrats, the numbers will be way down simply because it is not a presidential election,” said Fred Wright, Clay County Republican chairman.

In Willmar, a crowd of almost 100 people at the DFL caucus outnumbered those at the GOP event.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, noticed the difference. “They have a pretty packed house over there. We’re going to have our work cut out for us."

Frank Wirsing, chairman of the Polk County Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said turnout was far from what he saw two years ago, when 200 to 300 people showed up; he said he would have been happy with 20 this year, but just eight were there.

Democrats were pushing for a good voter turnout this year.

"One of the messages that we're trying to send this year is DFLers in Goodhue County, we mean business and we want to see something happen in November," Ceri Everett said.

“I think it’s going to be very exciting,” Democrat Nancy Brovold said in Bemidji. “There are a lot of openings this year. It’s an important year and we’re hopeful for a lot of turnout.”

Douglas County DFL Chairman Jon Koll said they have raised more money than ever before for the upcoming campaigns. “And the numbers keep going up and participation is going up,” he added.

Pawlenty's future was a topic of discussion at both parties' caucuses.

Terri Cheney, a Hastings GOP caucus organizer, said Pawlenty's late entrance into the governor's race could hurt the party.

"It is terribly disappointing," Cheney said. "The money and participation has already been holding out on the sidelines to see how things sift out."

At least one Newport Republican was against a Pawlenty candidacy.

"Definitely not," said Everett Acker. "We’ve had enough of him. He’s not conservative enough."

In Alexandria, Tim Ness voted for Jeff Johnson in the straw poll but “Pawlenty is the one I really hope for. ... He just has a kind personality. The kind of person who could win people over.”

Among the Becker County Republicans, support was strong for gubernatorial candidate Johnson, who grew up in Detroit Lakes.

"Of course I support Jeff Johnson," said LaVonne Nordgulen, secretary of the Becker County Republicans.

But Tim Pawlenty is still popular among Becker County Republicans.

"He did a good job -- he was a good governor," she said.

The straw poll was atop the agenda in 4,000 precincts around the state. Caucus attendees also were to pick local party leaders and delegates for conventions that will endorse candidates later this year.

No poll was planned for U.S. Senate candidates, in either race that will be on the November ballot. One race will decide who will fill out the final two years of Al Franken's term; he resigned last month after several sexual misconduct allegations surfaced.

In an email, Downey's campaign reminded Republican activists that Johnson lost an attorney general race in 2006 and a governor campaign four years ago.

"If you want to win the governor's race, then get out and vote for Keith ... at the Republican precinct caucuses," the email said.

Johnson responded: "Unfortunately, one of my opponents -- Keith Downey -- has turned almost solely to attacks against me in the desperate hope of scoring higher in the caucus straw poll tonight. I won't respond in kind (though it would be pretty easy) because we won't win in November by tearing down other Republicans."

Such a division is unusual among Republican candidates and it likely spurred Republican caucus turnout.

Although Republicans and Democrats conducted straw polls for their governor race candidates, poll winners often do not end up on the November general election ballot.

However, the outcome of the Downey-Johnson spat could affect a couple of big names still thinking about getting in: Pawlenty and House Speaker Kurt Daudt.

Daudt remains uncommitted to the race.

Pawlenty and Daudt were not on the straw poll ballot.

Declared governor candidates for both parties have been traveling the state trying to get support from party faithful who may attend caucuses. Other than several forums, they have had relatively little interaction with the general public.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says his current term, which ends early next January, will be his last in public office.

The last time there was an open governor's office, in 2010, caucus straw polls gave Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak the DFL advantage and state Rep. Marty Seifert the Republican nod. Neither won his political party's endorsement.

While party chairmen say they want the decision about who will run for various offices to be decided in party conventions, there are signs the governor races may be decided in an Aug. 14 primary.

Democrats will meet in Rochester for their nominating convention and Republicans in Duluth, both the first weekend of June.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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