Minnesotans Wednesday woke up to a repeat of their long nightmare - a statewide race with a margin that leads straight into the depths of a recount.
With only 19 precincts left to report, DFLer Mark Dayton leads Republican Tom Emmer by less than one half of 1 percentage point -- 43.67% to 43.24%.
Independence Party candidate Tom Horner finished third with about 12 percent.
For any race where the margin is less than one-half of 1 percentage point, there is an automatic recount, as happened two years ago in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race when Sen. Al Franken unseated Norm Coleman.
Wednesday's business for both candidates included taking the first steps to plan for the recount. Dayton's campaign staff was planning to hold a morning meeting while state Republican leaders held a morning press conference at which they expressed suspicions about the vote count.
A member of Franken's 2008 recount legal team says lawyers for Minnesota Democrats are already preparing for the recount. Former Minnesota U.S. attorney David Lillehaug says it's too early to talk about Democrats' strategies before the votes are finalized, but that the party will be ready for the possibility.
“We are concerned about the fact that there were many discrepencies,” said Tony Sutton, the state Republican Party chairman.
Sutton stopped short of claiming vote fruad, but said: “Something doesn’t smell right” when the Republicans take over both state houses, oust Democrat U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, but “somehow, we don’t win the governor’s race.”
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who won reelection Tuesday and whose office supervised the Franken-Coleman recount, was also meeting with reporters in the morning.
Although the difference between Dayton and Emmer is less than that required half-percentage point, it is many times larger than the lead Coleman had the Wednesday after Election Day, or the 312-vote lead that Franken secured eight months later.
Republicans are still rubbed raw by that vote switch and pledged, even before votes were tallied in the 2010 governor's race, not to be bested in a recount again.
But while that 2008 recount dragged on, and the U.S. Senate survived one member shy of a full 100, Minnesota needs a governor to function as the state's chief executive.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's term is set to expire the first week in January. The office could be vacant then, if the many-month span of the 2008 Senate race recount and election trial is any measure. That fact set about a re-reading of the Minnesota constitution to examine what it says about the governor's term.
"The term of office for the governor and lieutenant governor is four years and until a successor is chosen and qualified," the constitution says.
Attorneys are sure to fight over each word in that sentence, as well as in companion state laws that govern the governor's term.
In the coming days, the vote margin between Dayton and Emmer is sure to change as the last remaining precincts check in and election officials re-check their tallies.
Election results are considered unofficial until the state canvassing board meets to certify them. That meeting should come in three weeks.
At 10 a.m. today, the state Republican party will hold a news conference to discuss its recount views.
That event will include the party's attorney Tony Trimble, who was a key member of Coleman's 2008 recount team.
Neither Dayton nor Emmer released details of their plans for the day as the dawn rose. The Dayton campaign planned an internal morning meeting for to discuss what's next, said Katie Tinucci, spokeswoman for the campaign.
In a press release, Emmer said Wednesday morning: “With nearly 100% of precincts reporting, this race is still too close to call. The margin that currently separates Senator Dayton and me is currently within the automatic recount trigger. There is a process in law that will ensure that we arrive at a conclusive result, ensuring that all valid votes are counted and the will of the voters is met.”
In the wee hours of the night, both acknowledged the closeness of the race and urged their supporters to keep the faith.
As outstate counties dribbled in their results late at night and early this morning, Emmer steadily cut into Dayton's early lead. Dayton's lead stands at about 9,000 votes.
Unless the remaining two dozen precincts deliver a surprising shift, Minnesotans will once again face the prospect of a contentious and likely protracted recount battle.
With the 2008 recount, the Senate seat remained vacant for eight months as the hand counting of ballots and court battles prolonged the contest.
In the governor's race, Dayton won the most populous counties -- Hennepin and Ramsey -- while Emmer won the key suburban counties and the vast majority of outstate counties. But in the suburban areas, Emmer prevailed by margins below what Gov. Tim Pawlenty had when he barely edged out DFLer Mike Hatch in 2006. Had Emmer matched Pawlenty's performance in the suburbs, he might well have come out the clear winner.
At about 2 a.m., Dayton thanked his supporters and apologized for the slow results.
"I wish things were proceeding faster than they are," he said. "At this point, we are about 15,000 votes ahead [which he was at that moment]. I thank you for your patience and for your commitment to being here. I'll write you all notes to your employers tomorrow....
"I am cautiously optimistic."
Emmer appeared in front of supporters for the first time at 1:30 a.m. He called it a "wonderful night acros the country and in Minnesota" and said "the numbers are moving in the right direction. We're not quite done yet.
"Keep the faith," he said.
At 3:30 a.m., a campaign spokeswoman told the 100 or so people still milling about that Emmer would not make another appearance.
Here's an analysis of what happened in the bellweather counties.
The metro area
More than half of the state's population lives in the seven-county metro area, and Emmer needed to carry all five of the strictly suburban counties -- Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington -- to win.
He did, but not by the kind of margins that Gov. Tim Pawlenty enjoyed when he won a cliffhanger -- by 1 point -- over DFLer Mike Hatch.
Emmer won handily in Anoka, and his 10-point margin over Dayton was slightly better than Pawlenty's winning margin in 2006 (by 9 points).
Emmer won Carver County, but by a smaller margin than did Pawlenty. Emmer won the county by 30 points, short of Pawlenty's 34-point margin over Hatch.
Emmer won Dakota by 8 points and Washington by 9 points, but those margins are smaller than what Pawlenty had in 2006 (11 points in Dakota and 12 points in Washington).
Emmer also won Scott County, and he matched Pawlenty's percentages there.
Dayton's stronghold was in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the inner-ring suburbs give Democrats a huge boost.
In 2006, for example, Hatch won Hennepin and Ramsey by double digits (by 10 points in Hennepin and by 17 points in Ramsey).
Dayton outpaced Hatch's margins from 2006 in both of those counties. Dayton won Ramsey by 23 points and Hennepin, the state's most populous county, by 15 points.
Two outstate counties are also key barometers in statewide elections.
In St. Louis County, which includes Duluth and the Iron Range, Democrats running statewide need to pile up big margins in this county, among the few outstate counties they can win.
Dayton has been popular in that area. But the successful challenge for the congressional seat by the GOP's Chip Cravaack drew out more Republican voters and gave Emmer a big of a boost.
In 2006, Hatch won St. Louis County by 36 percentage points over Pawlenty. Dayton is doing slightly worse than Hatch did, winning by 33 points with 99 percent of the county's precincts in.
For Emmer's chances, Olmsted County, which includes Rochester, was important.
Even when Pawlenty won narrowly over Hatch, Pawlenty carried Olmsted by 16 points.
But this is an area where Horner apparently peeled off lots of moderate Republican votes and ate into Emmer's vote total.
With all precincts in, Emmer won the county by only 8 percentage points, or only half of Pawlenty's winning margin in 2006.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m., Horner gave what sounded like a concession speech, even if he didn't say it directly.
"We'll see where the evening turns out," he said. "But I do want to let whoever wins this race to know that I'm standing by to help that person build a better Minnesota."
To a reporter, Horner acknowledged "I'm not going to be the winner."
Bill McAuliffe, Curt Brown and Richard Meryhew contributed to this report.
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