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Analysis: Democrats' Trumpphobia continues to energize Minnesota base

Minnesota state Rep. Paul Thissen, a former House speaker, dropped out of the governor's race Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, after a poor showing the night before in a Democratic straw poll. He is shown at a Minnesota Newspaper Association forum in January 2018. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — It is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from precinct caucuses, especially from non-binding straw polls conducted there, but one fact stands out from this week's caucus night: Almost three times as many Democrats showed up at the Tuesday, Feb. 6, caucuses than Republicans.

That could be a scary fact for the GOP, whose loyalists are known for turning out.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members cast about 30,000 straw poll ballots.

Many Democrats — no one knows exactly how many — showed up because they are upset with and energized by Republican President Donald Trump.

On the other hand, there are some indications that the low turnout by Republicans (just short of 11,000) partially could be because many are not overly excited about what is happening in Washington. Others are not excited about GOP governor candidates, so saw no reason to vote in the poll.

Douglas County DFL Chairman Jon Koll said they have raised more money than ever for campaigns. "And the numbers keep going up and participation is going up."

This is an important election year.

"There’s a lot of concerns and there are so many seats up with the U.S. House of Representatives, two U.S. senators and the governor," Beltrami County Republican Chairman Rich Siegert said.

Terri Cheney of Hastings, first-year GOP caucus organizer who has attended five or six caucuses, said, "Usually there is more than we had here this evening, even in an off year; we’re sort of mystified."

She said one theory she has heard claims people paid so much attention to the Super Bowl that they did not know about caucuses.

Tim Finseth, a former southern Minnesota Republican state legislator who helped lead a caucus in East Grand Forks, said turnout was lower this year not just because the ballot lacks a presidential race, but because there’s little division about the party’s platform. Of nearly 20 caucus participants who did show up, several spoke of caucusing as a habit or a duty.

The results

The first straw poll victim was state Rep. Paul Thissen, who Wednesday morning dropped out of the governor's race.

The Minneapolis Democrat, a former House speaker, picked up support from less than 5 percent of those voting at caucuses.

"I know from experience that so much of life is not just working hard, but being in the right place at the right time," Thissen said. "Now is not the right time for my campaign for governor."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz won the DFL straw poll Tuesday night, although results are not binding and history has shown in both parties that candidates who win the straw poll often are not on the November general election ballot

With most precincts reporting, Walz had 31 percent. State Auditor Rebecca Otto held a solid second place with 20 percent, followed by state Rep. Erin Murphy, 13 percent; former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, 12 percent; and state Rep. Tina Liebling, 6 percent.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a Detroit Lakes native, was the clear Republican governor race winner with 45 percent.

The 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.

Pawlenty impact

He was not on the straw poll ballot, but Tim Pawlenty may have been the big caucus winner.

His announcement that he is leaving a lucrative Washington job came on the morning of the caucuses. Coincidence? Probably not.

Many Republicans are not happy with their field of governor candidates, and Pawlenty's entrance would come with immediate credibility and maybe give him front-runner status.

Republican Leon Orr of Farmington said few candidates caught his interest so far except for Pawlenty.

"He would be the strongest support I'd have for any office statewide," Orr said.

In Alexandria, Republican 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.”

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria spoke before the GOP caucus but did not participate and is not endorsing anyone yet.

"Pawlenty might change the swing of things," Ingebrigtsen said. "But we have a lot of really good candidates."

Other Republicans, however, were not on the Pawlenty bandwagon. Some said he was not conservative enough, and some were not happy with the time he took running for president while serving as governor.

An advisor for one campaign said Pawlenty would take flak for backing a cigarette tax increase (a "health impact fee," he called it) and for pushing conservation programs early in his tenure.

National Democratic groups appeared concerned that Pawlenty could do well because as soon as he announced he was leaving his job, looking like he would run for governor, they shot news releases out to Minnesota media. Their angle? Pawlenty made millions millions lobbying for big wall street banks.

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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