Campaigning for the Nov. 2 election begins in earnest Feb. 2.
Precinct caucuses on Tuesday will give local residents an early say in state legislative races, a wide-open battle for the governor's office and an attention-grabbing congressional contest.
The caucuses, which mark the unofficial beginning of the election year, also give even the most casual political activists an opportunity to shape campaigns and parties.
"This is the idea stage," said David Beaudet, a local DFL Party leader. "This is where residents can come forward and chat with their fellow residents and put forth good ideas."
Woodbury-area Democrats and Republicans will gather to select local party leaders, discuss issues they want to see become a position of their party and elect delegates to attend Senate District 56 endorsing conventions.
Each party is trying to attract long-time activists as well as people who never have caucused before. Anyone can observe caucuses, but participation at each party's caucus is limited to residents of the precinct who are aligned with the party.
People who wish to move on as delegates or alternates to the Senate district conventions must be registered to vote in their precinct by Election Day.
This is the first precinct caucus since 2008, when thousands of people flooded caucuses around the state because of the presidential election.
Republicans are fired up for the 2010 mid-term elections, said Joe Salmon, the district GOP chairman. Republicans expect their attendance to be about what it was in 2008, around 1,100 people, he said.
"The main draw would be because people are really discouraged with the way the national political outlook is going," Salmon said. "There's a lot of people that also want to see some changes in the way the state is being run."
Democrats had 3,600 at the local caucus in 2008, but the number probably will be around 800 to 1,000 next week, said Beaudet, district DFL Party chairman. That is typical for a non-presidential year when there is no U.S. Senate race, he said.
"We know that statistically people are much more engaged in trying to help a presidential candidate," he said.
Republicans in Senate District 56 will split up for their caucuses. Those in House District 56A, the northern half of the district, will caucus at Stillwater Area High School. Republicans in 56B will meet at East Ridge High School.
Democrats will caucus as a Senate district at Oak-Land Junior High School in Lake Elmo.
Caucuses begin at 7 p.m.
Democrats who attend the caucus and are elected as delegates to the Senate district convention are expected to endorse Sen. Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury and Reps. Marsha Swails and Julie Bunn for re-election.
Some of the delegates may be chosen to advance to the congressional and state conventions, where activists will back an opponent to GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann. Democrats Maureen Reed of Stillwater and state Sen. Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud are seeking the 6th District endorsement. Delegates to the state convention will support candidates for governor and other statewide offices.
GOP caucus participants who move on to the Republican Senate district convention will endorse legislative candidates. Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo and Kelly Parker and Dustin Endres, both of Woodbury, are running for Saltzman's seat. Bunn, of Lake Elmo, is being challenged by Republicans Kathy Lohmer of Lake Elmo and Erik Ogren of Stillwater. Andrea Kieffer is running against Swails, a fellow Woodbury resident.
The governor's race will be atop Minnesota ballots this fall, and caucus-goers could help narrow that contest. Republicans and Democrats will conduct gubernatorial preference ballots.
The poll results could narrow the field; governor candidates who have a poor showing in the caucus polls may drop out of the race.
Local voters not in synch with either Democrats or Republicans may look to the Independence Party, which also will caucus Tuesday. Because fewer people are aligned with the Independence Party, it will caucus in areas larger than Senate Districts. Local residents will caucus in Mahtomedi, but the Independence Party also is continuing its caucus on the Internet until Feb. 28.
Caleb Davies, the IP's 6th Congressional District chairman, said his party is drawing more attention this year because of "discontent" with Republicans and Democrats.
"In the Independence Party, it's a lot easier to have your voice heard," Davies said.