By John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
Jan. 30–Party activists in neighborhoods across Minnesota will gather next week to reorganize the state’s major political parties, pass resolutions on key issues and elect delegates to party conventions.
Precinct caucuses are held every other year in the state and are considered the foundations of our party system. Yet only a tiny fraction of state residents actually attend.
Some say the system is broken, that not enough people participate to make it valid. Others argue that the system, like much of life, is run by those who show up.
Republicans will have a bit more media attention statewide this year as they take a straw poll to see who the favorite is for the presidential nominee.
That poll, to be taken as one of the first matters of business at each caucus, is more of a popularity contest so results can be reported nationally. It isn’t binding, and delegates who move up the chain in the local and state convention system may end up supporting someone else by the time they get to the Republican National Convention in late August in Tampa, Fla.
The four major candidates still in the race will be on the ballot — Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. And while they haven’t been touring the state like they did Iowa last month, all four have active campaigns.
“Ron Paul’s people have been very active. Gingrich has a presence in the state.
Romney has people here now,” said Zach Freimark, political director of the Minnesota Republican Party. “If you’d have asked me a couple weeks ago, I thought it was down to a one-man race. But it’s much closer now.”
8th District race draws interest
With an unchallenged incumbent in the White House, DFLers don’t have a presidential race this year, a factor that usually leads to poor attendance at caucuses. But across the 8th Congressional District DFLers do have a pretty heated race for U.S. Congress. Former Duluth city Councilor Jeff Anderson, former St. Cloud area state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former 6th District Congressman Rick Nolan of Crosby all are vying for the chance to take on freshman incumbent Republican Chip Cravaack of North Branch.
The caucus will include a straw poll for the congressional race but, more importantly, also includes voting for delegates on to the county and eventually congressional district party convention on May 5 at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, where the party is expected to endorse a candidate.
“The caucuses are the first step in the process. We need to win now to win the endorsement in May and to go on to win in November,” Nolan said. “I’m really hoping that we can come together behind one candidate on May 5 so we don’t spend the summer divided among ourselves. We need to spend those months defining the differences between our vision for the district and Cravaack’s vision.”
Nolan, who represented north-central Minnesota in Congress from 1977-81, is the only one of the three who has promised to abide by that endorsement process. That promise has endeared Nolan to party activists, and he’s expected to attract the lion’s share of delegates elected at the precinct caucuses, which sets him up to win the party endorsement at the 8th District Convention in May.
“I’ve always been an endorsed candidate. And I will support whoever is endorsed. I believe in the system,” Nolan told the News Tribune. “The endorsement system allows men and women of modest means, who don’t have millions to spend, to have a chance at elected office.”
Candidates may ignore endorsement
Clark and Anderson have hinted they will stay in the race through the party primary. But they aren’t conceding the endorsement yet. Their campaigns have said Nolan got the early support for longtime party activists because of his stint in Congress 30 years ago. But they’re hoping a surge of their supporters showing up at caucuses will give Clark and Anderson a good showing in the straw poll and delegate support going forward.
In 2010, even with a heated race for governor within the party, only about 2,500 people caucused as DFLers across the 8th District. In 2012, with the presidential race in full tilt, more than 12,000 caucused.
“We’re working very hard to get that number back up, to get new people into the process from across the district. I think people are starting to pay attention to this race now,” Anderson said. “The caucus will be a good sign of support from beyond the party officials and party activists. It’s the first chance for regular folks to say who they want to take on Chip Cravaack.”
Anderson noted that party endorsement doesn’t always mean success. In 2010, Mark Dayton was not endorsed by the party but won the DFL primary. In 1974, Jim Oberstar lost a heated endorsement battle but went on to win the primary.
“We haven’t decided if we will abide by the endorsement process or not,” Anderson said. “But there’s a lot of history of very successful candidates who did not and went on to win.”