Political strategists who have helped Democratic congressional candidates eke out narrow victories from here to New Jersey, mailed campaign ads for Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and helped defeat both proposed Minnesota constitutional amendments last fall now are turning their attention to a new battleground: the Minneapolis mayoral race.

Candidates for the city’s first open mayoral seat in two decades are hiring strategists and raising money in preparation for a long fight that promises to be the most-watched political race in the state this fall. It’s attracting added attention as one of the first major tests nationally of ranked-choice voting, under which the winner could be many voters’ second preference.

The field to replace Mayor R.T. Rybak already includes City Council Members Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels and Gary Schiff; former council President Jackie Cherryhomes; former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, and attorney Cam Winton. Others are considering a run.

Their first test of strength is a little more than three weeks away, when they will vie to elect delegates at the city’s precinct caucuses, a precursor to the DFL Party city convention in June, when all but Winton — who is running as an independent — will seek the party’s endorsement.

Five of the six candidates will meet publicly for the first time this week at a University of Minnesota debate, where they will discuss the details of their platforms.

The strategizing around the ranked-choice voting was a draw for some of the political heavy-hitters coming to town to run the campaigns.

“There was a lot of interest in doing this race just because it’s new territory, it’s a new problem, it’s a new challenge,” said Andrew O’Leary, campaign manager for Hodges.

Experienced help

Hodges, the council’s budget chair, has assembled the most high-profile campaign team so far, with several consultants based in Washington, D.C., and a finance director who held the same job with last year’s multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat the proposed marriage amendment. O’Leary himself was executive director of the state DFL Party and worked for the Democratic National Committee during the 2012 election cycle.

Candidates will not have to report any fundraising numbers until September, so staffing is a key early indicator of who has amassed the most resources. Attracting national-level talent indicates that the campaign has “got enough money in the bank that they’ve convinced that person, ‘Come here and we’ve got the resources that you can run a really first-rate campaign,’ ” said Brian Melendez, an attorney who has chaired the state and Minneapolis DFL.

Samuels’ team is led by Patrick Layden, who worked on Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s campaign. The campaign’s polling and direct-mail firms, Global Strategy Group and Mission Control, have been involved in mayoral races from Atlanta to Kansas City.

Andrew’s campaign manager, Joe Ellickson, was deputy campaign manager of the 2012 effort to defeat the photo ID amendment. The campaign’s political director, Cara Letofsky, was a Rybak policy aide who ran Linda Higgins’ successful campaign for Hennepin County commissioner last fall. Mail is being handled by a D.C.-based firm that worked for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s campaign last fall to defeat U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District.

To manage his campaign, Schiff has brought in Mark Warren, who spent years fundraising and managing campaigns in New Jersey and was candidate services director and an independent contractor for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was a senior adviser on Nolan’s campaign.

Cherryhomes’ campaign is being managed by Eric Reichwald, who was field director on the Higgins campaign.

Ranked choice

Like most of the staff members for the mayoral candidates this year, Warren hasn’t worked in a ranked-choice voting campaign — and he said he thinks that dynamic will change the tone.

Under the new system, a winner is selected by factoring in citizens’ second or third choices until a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes. Minneapolis used it once before in 2009, on a smaller scale, as have a handful of other cities.

Ranked-choice voting “creates an atmosphere for a more positive campaign, because if you’re not their first choice, you need them to consider you for a second choice,” he said. “That means we really have to run on our ideas.”

Others hope that ranked-choice voting could loosen the DFL stronghold on city politics.

“I think that it gives independent candidates who are not backed by a major political party a chance to talk to voters directly and a chance to win,” said Ashwin Madia, who is the treasurer for Winton’s campaign. Madia was the DFL-endorsed candidate for Congress against U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen in 2008, when Winton served as his treasurer.

A national trend

Other major cities with mayor’s races this year are St. Paul, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle and Los Angeles, among others.

Around the country, many campaigns are costing more and more, and are attracting involvement from ideologically driven interest groups, according to Don Borut, who recently retired as longtime executive director of the National League of Cities. He said that while local issues will define these campaigns, candidates in every city will have to talk about how to address continuing declines in federal aid.

In Minneapolis, campaigns have been kicking off formally in the last two months, but some have been laying the groundwork for much longer.

“I just got off the phone with a person who first got approached to support another candidate eight months ago,” Andrew said. “Because they’ve all been mysteriously aware that the mayor wasn’t running ... And I don’t have the luxury of having been able to organize for that long of a period of time.”

Receiving the party’s nod in June could be a huge boost to any of the campaigns.

But “this election has exactly the kind of recipe for a deadlocked convention,” said Melendez, who chaired the Minneapolis DFL when Rybak blocked the endorsement of incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton in 2001.

He said he has already given money to more than one candidate, though he supports Hodges.

“I think the view of most people is that more than one of these folks would make a good mayor.”