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Next week, Minnesota's caucuses expected to be more manageable than 2016

Anita Sandborgh distributes ballots in a crowded Republican precinct room in Cottage Grove at the 2016 Minnesota precinct caucuses. In the Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, caucuses, those attending will cast straw poll ballots for governor. Scott Wente / Forum News Service1 / 2
It was standing room only during the 2016 Minnesota precinct caucuses at the Willmar Middle School cafeteria. A lighter turnout is expected on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2016. Gary Miller / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesota precinct caucus leaders ran out of ballots as long lines of people waited to get into the political meetings, with drivers in blocks-long traffic jams not even there yet.

About 300 showed up at a Willmar site that hosted 75 four years earlier.

That was 2016. Don't expect the same turnout at the 2018 caucuses on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said the caucuses will draw thousands, but short of the record 321,354 that came two years ago.

Martin and Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said Minnesota has a political target drawn on it this year, with a governor's race, two U.S. Senate races and about half of the state's eight U.S. House races potentially being competitive.

"2018 is an incredibly important election year for both parties," Carnahan said. "We are a top-tier targeted state by both parties."

Added Martin: "Minnesota is going to be the epicenter for politics."

The party leaders said the best way for people to have a say about who will be on the Nov. 6 ballot is to get involved at the caucuses, where besides a straw poll in the governor's race, attendees will elect delegates to future conventions, pick local party leaders and discuss issues.

Carnahan said she is an example of how caucuses work.

She attended her first caucus in 2016 after becoming frustrated with the federal government as a small business owner. She was tapped to run for the state Senate that year, which she lost in a heavily Democratic area, but soon was elected state party chairwoman.

She said people should not be intimidated by caucuses.

Getting in on the ground floor on Tuesday means attendees can help shape change. "It really is that first step of getting involved at a deeper level if that is what one chooses," the GOP leader said And, she added, this year's elections are important. "The 2018 elections for Minnesota really are going to shape the future of Minnesota for years to come."

Precinct caucuses will be held throughout the state, starting at 7 p.m. The first order of business is required by law to be holding a non-binding straw poll for governor. Even though two statewide U.S. Senate races are on the ballot, the party leaders said only the governor's race is required to be voted on and neither party will check attendees' temperatures on other races.

The Minnesota secretary of state's office provides a website to locate caucuses:

Statewide, U.S. House and legislative campaigns will be among groups trying to influence who is selected as delegates to future conventions. Party conventions for those and other races will endorse candidates.

The statewide endorsements for governor and U.S. Senate will be decided the first weekend of June when the two parties gather for their state conventions.

On Sunday, Jan. 28, Attorney General Lori Swanson announced she would run for re-election instead of governor as had been expected. If she ran for governor, most observers thought she would ignore the state convention and simply go to a primary election, which would delay picking a candidate for November and keeping the party divided longer.

Martin said that a primary still could happen, but is less likely with Swanson out of the governor's race.

Carnahan said the upheaval in the federal government probably will have little impact on her party's caucus turnout, but Martin said Washington politics could incite his Democrats to show up.

Martin said his party has "seen a tremendous surge in energy and activism" since Donald Trump became president.

Much of the attention Tuesday night will be focused on the governor straw poll, although other business is important to the parties.

Democratic governor candidates are U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, state Rep. Erin Murphy, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, state Rep. Tina Liebling, state Rep. Paul Thissen and Captain Jack Sparrow.

Republican governor hopefuls are former GOP Chairman Keith Downey, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, political activist Jeffrey Ryan Wharton, perennial candidate Ole Savior, political activist Phillip Parrish, Ukraine native and former U.S. House candidate Nickolay Bey, perennial candidate Bob Carney, lawyer and investor Lance Johnson and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.

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.