Minnesota Democrats gather in Duluth this weekend to launch the re-election bids of Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, as the two party heavyweights gear up to defend seats they won by narrow margins.

At the same time, Republicans meeting in Rochester for their convention will try to choose candidates who can capitalize on Democratic weaknesses and give the party its first statewide win since 2006. But party unity may be hard to come by. A crowded field of candidates — some of whom already are preparing to press on to the summer primary — means Republicans could remain divided until August.

The fight for dominance is expected to be intense — so much so that neither party was willing to let the other have its own weekend of convention news. Going back decades, the Minnesota DFL and GOP obligingly staggered their state conventions for different weekends. This year, both stuck to the same weekend, making for a frenzied few days of politicking as the two sides attempt to set the tone for a campaign in which the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and control of the state House are all up for grabs.

In Dayton and Franken, Republicans see two incumbents who barely squeaked into office, now defending their records in an election cycle shaping up as a rough one nationally for Democrats. Dayton won in 2010 in a recount, by 8,770 votes out of more than 2 million cast. Franken’s win in 2008 was even slighter, a 312-vote margin as certified by the state Supreme Court after a long and contentious recount battle with former Sen. Norm Coleman.

“I’m looking for candidates who are on a mission,” said Matt Stevens, a party activist from Elk River and a delegate to the Rochester convention. “Dayton and Franken are absolutely beatable. But we have to be thinking about general election viability.”

Republicans have not won a statewide race since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty gained a second term in 2006. It has been a full generation since a GOP candidate unseated a Democratic incumbent in a statewide race. The last time was Arne Carlson, who took out DFLer Rudy Perpich in the 1990 governor’s race.

Plenty of GOP contenders

Despite the perceived vulnerability of Dayton and Franken, the GOP’s most prominent players opted out of this year’s statewide races: Pawlenty, Coleman, and U.S. House members Erik Paulsen, John Kline and Michele Bachmann. That left both fields with a cluster of contenders, but no clear front-runner heading into the convention.

“We didn’t draw any of our A-list candidates this time around. I think activists just aren’t coalescing around one or two people,” said Jeff Kolb, a party activist from Crystal and convention delegate. “There hasn’t been the one candidate in either race for everyone to rally around.”

Five contenders are jostling for primacy in the governor’s race: Orono businessman and first-time candidate Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth, former state lawmaker Marty Seifert, state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove. Most seriously vying for the Republican Senate nod are state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth, Sunfish Lake investment banker and first-time candidate Mike McFadden, and state Sen. Julianne Ortman from Chanhassen.

Republicans, meeting at the Mayo Civic Center, plan to endorse for Senate on Friday and for governor on Saturday. Democrats, who will gather at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, will endorse both Dayton and Franken on Saturday.

The outcome in Duluth is certain. In Rochester, it’s anything but.

In the governor’s race, Seifert, Thompson and Johnson are expected to mount the most serious bids for endorsement, which requires winning 60 percent of delegates at the convention. All four Senate candidates are vying for the endorsement, but Ortman and McFadden are seen as the top contenders.

Both fields are muddied further by the varying post-convention plans of the candidate. Both Honour and Zellers plan to run in the Aug. 12 primary, and Seifert has left the option open. McFadden also is running in August even if he doesn’t get the endorsement, as is Abeler.

That means the likelihood of hard-fought GOP primaries in both races for the first time in several decades. Some party veterans are irritated by the new fractiousness, after years of a state GOP that went out of its way to avoid contested primaries.

“Why would we bother if it didn’t matter?” said Bill Jungbauer, chairman of the Second Congressional District GOP and a convention alternate. “If we go to the trouble of endorsing a candidate, that candidate deserves every ounce of our support.”

But others say they are not worried about Republicans duking it out among themselves over the summer. Stevens, who’s backing McFadden for Senate and is undecided in the governor’s race, pointed out that Dayton won in 2010 after first dispatching two DFL opponents in the primary. One was then-House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the party’s endorsed candidate.

“Contested primaries are a good way to bring attention to your candidates and their ideas,” Stevens said.

Financial troubles in recent years brought the state GOP to the brink of bankruptcy. Party chairman Keith Downey said the worst of those problems has passed, but added that the party has been dogged by internal squabbling after repeated statewide losses.

“It just didn’t subside,” Downey said. This time, he said, “there is a sense that we’ve got to find a way to come together.”

Dems looking to November

Meanwhile, with two incumbents at the top of the ticket, Democrats in Duluth will have the luxury of pivoting directly to November. The only real contest is in the open secretary of state race, which pits state representatives Steve Simon of Hopkins and Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center against each other. Both have pledged to abide by the endorsement.

Dayton did not pursue the DFL endorsement in 2010, and skipped the convention entirely after he was denied access to the floor. The political veteran, now running in the first re-election race of his career, admitted he’d be watching what happens in Rochester with interest.

“It’s not going to be conclusive, but it’s certainly going to be informative,” Dayton said.


Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.