ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Thousands of political-party faithful turned out for caucuses Tuesday in Minnesota, with Republicans casting nonbinding votes for their preferred candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, and Democrats readying for tough campaigns to keep both offices.
The Democratic, Independence and Republican parties were preparing to stage evening precinct caucuses. Republicans held straw polls in the top races, but results were slow to trickle in late Tuesday night.
Candidates for Senate and governor made the rounds at the partisan gatherings at schools, community centers and town halls. While the straw polls don't always predict the eventual nominees, they can have a thinning effect by giving a wake-up call to sputtering campaigns. The caucuses tend to draw the most ardent party members.
Republican Steve Zelinsky, a Minnetonka accountant caucusing at Eden Prairie High School, said he felt good about the party's 2014 prospects after a series of tough election cycles for GOP candidates statewide. He said President Barack Obama's tenure was galvanizing Republicans.
"I'm energized more than ever," Zelinsky said. "There's a bigger need for our message after almost six years of Obama. It's been a little while since we've been able to get it out effectively, but this year I think we will."
Democrat Tom Kayser, 76, a Minneapolis law firm partner, was at a caucus in St. Paul. He said he was optimistic about the chances of Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken because of the improving economy, even though there have been recent bumps over the nation's new health care law. But he acknowledged: "There's no such thing as a sure thing in politics."
The intrigue at this year's caucuses was on the Republican side. The GOP has full fields of Senate and gubernatorial candidates, including some who are tying their campaigns to success in the party endorsement process. But a few candidates are eyeing a primary, no matter what, to decide the general election nominees.
Among Democrats, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken say they're running for re-election. Both won their first terms by narrow margins. Neither faces serious competition from a challenger within the party. Straw polls weren't held on their side.
The caucuses are a way for campaigns to test their organization by turning out supporters who fight to move on to district and state endorsing conventions. But the straw poll can be deceiving.
In 2010, Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert scored a commanding caucus night win. But he was overtaken months later by fellow state Rep. Tom Emmer at the state GOP convention. Emmer lost to Dayton in the general election.
Seifert is running for governor again. His Republican rivals this time include businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Rep. Kurt Zellers, state Sen. Dave Thompson and teacher Rob Farnsworth.
Honour has raised and spent the most among Republican candidates so far. But before any results came in, Honour downplayed their meaning.
"Our campaign didn't devote much in the way of time or resources to tonight's straw poll, so we go into it with very modest expectations," his campaign said in a statement.
Even for Dayton, the straw poll didn't matter last time. He wasn't even on the preference ballot at the caucus, but he wrested the Democratic nomination in a summer primary. The straw poll did, however, help knock a couple candidates from the race.
Dayton was planning to greet Democrats at a St. Paul school Tuesday night, but a sore hip that he is due to have surgically repaired led to a late cancellation. In his place, newly named running mate Tina Flint Smith made the rounds. She recited positive steps in Dayton's first term and warned fellow Democrats about the risks of complacency this fall.
"There's danger of this progress being turned back if we don't win the governor's and lose the House," Smith said.
In the Senate race, the Republican field includes investor Mike McFadden, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, state Rep. Jim Abeler, preacher Harold Shudlick, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, educator Phillip Parrish and farmer Monte Moreno.