Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will swoop into the Twin Cities on Friday, at a time when both campaigns are ramping up Minnesota organizing as their contest intensifies nationally.
“I think they each have a chance to win” Minnesota’s March 1 caucuses, state DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. “They’re both building impressive organizations.”
Both candidates will speak, though not share the stage, at a DFL fundraising dinner on Friday night at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Earlier in the day, Sanders is billed as guest of honor at a “Forum on Race and Economic Opportunity” at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, sponsored by the Minneapolis group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
The Democratic presidential race has grown more competitive since Clinton’s narrow win in the Iowa caucuses, followed by Sanders’ big win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Sanders has undermined the long-standing view of Clinton as prohibitive front-runner, and both campaigns are expanding efforts in states that are later on the primary and caucus calendar.
That includes Minnesota. Earlier this week, nearly 90 people, mostly women and many with long résumés in government service and DFL activism, gathered for a Clinton house party at the Dayton Avenue home of Ann Mulholland. Elected officials including Lt. Gov. Tina Smith rallied the crowd, and organizers harvested names of supporters and potential volunteers.
“I thought I was going to get 25 people on a late weekday afternoon,” said Mulholland, a longtime labor activist and former St. Paul deputy mayor. “But I got a house full of people because there’s a ton of energy around Hillary Clinton.”
A few miles west, about 30 Sanders volunteers worked the phones in the campaign’s cramped, poorly ventilated state headquarters on University Avenue in St. Paul. The group was more ragtag and more male, though there were plenty of women in the room, too. As the night progressed, more volunteers streamed in.
“This is the first person who’s ever actually made me feel like my vote might count for something,” said Lindsey Ohlendorf, a 26-year-old waitress in St. Paul staffing the Sanders phone bank. She attended his downtown St. Paul rally a few weeks back and, for the first time ever, signed up to volunteer for a political candidate.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in January found Clinton with a healthy lead over Sanders here. But that came before his success in Iowa and New Hampshire, which boosted voter interest and his fundraising. Sanders has particularly caught on with younger and more liberal voters.
Clinton’s lead organizer in Minnesota, Scott Hogan, said one of the campaign’s challenges will be activating voters more inclined to support the former secretary of state who haven’t yet fully engaged with the race.
“Some of our challenge is finding those voters who are on our side,” Hogan said. “Those people who otherwise wouldn’t normally caucus, convincing them to show up and vote.”
Clinton’s Minnesota headquarters are in the upper level of the plumbers union building in the Elliot Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. Wednesday night saw a phone-banking force there to rival that of Sanders, and both campaigns right now are putting a big emphasis on grass-roots techniques such as phone banks and door-knocking.
Thursday also saw the first airings of a Sanders TV ad on Minnesota stations.
Both Minnesota campaigns are staffed by veteran Democratic operatives. Hogan previously worked on a U.S. Senate campaign in Indiana, several congressional races and for President Obama’s re-election campaign in Florida in 2012.
Sanders’ top staffer in Minnesota is Robert Dempsey, who has worked on Democratic campaigns around the country and up and down the ballot for nearly two decades. He also led state Democratic parties in Vermont, North Carolina and Virginia.
“You look at the legacy of progressive Democrats like Hubert Humphrey or Walter Mondale or Paul Wellstone, and I think that Bernie Sanders very much fits in that mold,” Dempsey said. “This is a state that not only consistently votes Democrat, but I think overall the values the DFL espouses are the values and interests that Senator Sanders has always fought on behalf of.”
To date, the Democratic race has heated up in Minnesota more than on the Republican side. Several GOP candidates who put an early emphasis on Minnesota — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former business executive Carly Fiorina — have since dropped out. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz both have a number of high-profile backers who have mobilized volunteers here.
So far, no visible organizing effort on behalf of GOP front-runner Donald Trump has emerged in Minnesota.
By contrast, both Democratic candidates have multiple paid operatives working in Minnesota. Dempsey said the Sanders campaign has about two dozen people on its payroll here, though he added that number is in constant flux. Besides the St. Paul headquarters, there are satellite offices in Minneapolis, Bloomington, Rochester and St. Cloud.
Hogan was not willing to share the number of paid Clinton staffers in Minnesota, but said the campaign has organizers in all eight congressional districts
“I think we are incredibly strong,” Hogan said. “I think we have built a statewide structure.”