BLAINE, Minn. (AP) — Early Republican scrimmages Saturday in races for Minnesota governor and the U.S. Senate gave a leg up to a pair of candidates who are looking for any edge against better-financed rivals.
The straw polls at the Minnesota Republican Party's State Central Committee meeting were won by Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson in the governor's race and state Sen. Julianne Ortman for Senate. But if past preference polls are any guide, neither has a lock on the party's endorsement that will be awarded next May or the nomination to be decided in August.
"I don't know that I believe in the curse of the straw poll," Johnson said after his win, alluding to others who have been overtaken come state convention time. "These are the most active of the activists."
Johnson took 35 percent of the vote followed by state Sen. Dave Thompson with 27 percent. For Senate, Ortman's 37 percent was far above the second-place finisher, investment manager Mike McFadden.
Republicans are staring at their first competitive primaries in two decades thanks to newcomer candidates with personal wealth. Orono business executive Scott Honour intends to challenge whomever the party endorses for governor in an August primary; McFadden, of Sunfish Lake, has the same plans for Senate.
Democratic incumbents, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, have a clear path to their party's general election ballot line. That allows them stockpile money and spares them from potentially divisive intraparty fights.
The Republican governor's field could still grow: Former Rep. Marty Seifert finished third in a write-in effort and said he'll decide by Thanksgiving whether to make a second run at the state's top office.
"I didn't spend a penny. I don't have a campaign committee," said Seifert, of Marshall.
Johnson and Thompson said they won't move on to the primary without the GOP's endorsement. Honour and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove are making primary plans; they finished toward the bottom in the straw poll. Hibbing teacher Rob Farnsworth also was far back.
There were roughly 400 voters at the National Sports Center in Blaine. The central committee is made up of the most engaged activists, many of whom are influential with the party base back home. Past straw polls have had a thinning effect on race fields.
Former state auditor Patricia Anderson, herself a past candidate for governor, said as much as the poll can help the winner a poor finish can be devastating. Donors and the most committed in the party "are not going to go and jump on a horse who is not going anywhere," she said.
The gathering gave all of the candidates in both parties a chance to audition and test out themes.
Johnson, a former legislator from Plymouth, billed himself as "an unapologetic fiscal and social conservative not in an angry or obnoxious sort of way, but kind of in a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota sort of way. I've never been afraid of a fight when a fight is required."
Thompson, of Lakeville, played up his conservative credentials and said the party needs a conviction candidate, mentioning his push to curb union rights as an example. "We need to choose resolve over retreat," he said.
The two top Senate candidates mostly trained their fire on Franken, sharply criticizing him over his support for the nation's health law. "I refuse to call it Obamacare because I refuse to give him credit for this disaster because Franken has to own it," McFadden said.
But Ortman took subtle shots at the first-time candidate McFadden, too. "Al Franken taught us one thing: The United States senate seat is not an entry level position," she said.
Also in the race in order of finish are: preacher Harold Shudlick, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, state Rep. Jim Abeler and farmer Monte Moreno.
McFadden has a clear money advantage with $1.2 million in the bank — more than 10 times what Ortman has.
Franken narrowly unseated a GOP incumbent in his 2008 race, but so far the race isn't considered among the top tier of 2014 Senate contests.