U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson have opened up small leads as they seek to be their parties’ nominees for governor, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
The poll shows Walz leading the DFL pack with 21 percent, while Johnson leads Republicans with 24 percent.
But the results also highlight the fluidity and uncertainty of the two races as they enter a crucial phase less than three weeks from precinct caucuses Feb. 6. Nearly one-third of DFL voters and more than half of Republican voters remain undecided.
Voters have good reason to be deliberative: With DFL Gov. Mark Dayton not running for a third term, this year promises a wide open governor’s race that will help determine the state’s future, especially given legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2020 census.
And, with Republicans currently in the majority in the Legislature, the GOP has a chance at full control of state government for the first time in more than half a century, potentially transforming the state to become like its increasingly conservative neighbors in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
Even voters who made a choice in the poll said they were relying heavily on name recognition.
“I’ve heard he’s a decent guy,” Duluth DFL voter Richard Hansen said of former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Coleman came in third with 12 percent, behind Walz and Attorney General Lori Swanson, who was preferred by 16 percent of 298 poll respondents who said they generally vote in DFL primaries. Swanson has not declared she is running yet despite a widespread belief she will be a candidate.
Babs Anderson, a Brooklyn Park Republican who works at a hotel, said she supported Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt for governor because she’s heard good things from and about him. Daudt registered the support of 14 percent of 218 poll respondents who said they generally vote in Republican primaries. Daudt has not declared his candidacy and has publicly waffled on the question for months.
Former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty was not included in the poll. Despite repeatedly saying he is retired from politics, the two-term governor — the last Republican to win a statewide race — has also publicly mulled a return to Minnesota after five years as a Washington banking lobbyist.
With small samples of hard-core DFL and Republican voters, the poll’s margin of error is relatively high: 5.8 percent on the DFL side, and 6.8 percent for the Republican poll.
Despite the uncertainty, a clearer picture of the race is emerging on both sides.
Johnson, who lost in the 2014 general election to Dayton, continues to benefit from his name recognition, as well as relationships with Republican activists that go back years.
“I’m not surprised we’re in first because that’s a lot of hard work that’s paying off, and it feels like there’s momentum in the race,” Johnson said.
Walz campaign manager Nick Coe released a statement, “This is another encouraging sign that Tim and Peggy’s positive message about Minnesota’s future is resonating,” he said, referring to Walz’s running mate, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan. “Over the past nine months, thousands of people from across the state have taken ownership of this campaign,” he said.
The Walz campaign also released strong fundraising numbers recently, saying the campaign raised $1.1 million during the final nine months of 2017.
The long slog of the governor’s race is just beginning, however.
After the precinct caucuses — at which voters will have a chance to show their support for candidates by choosing them in a straw poll — the parties begin the long process of choosing delegates to their respective state conventions.
Republicans will meet in Duluth, while DFLers will meet in Rochester, both during the weekend of June 1.
Even after party endorsements, candidates become their party’s nominee only after winning party primaries Aug. 14.
If Swanson finally announces a run for governor, she is expected to skip the DFL Party endorsement process and head straight to a DFL primary, where she hopes her experience winning statewide campaigns will vault her to the top of her party’s field.
Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for Swanson, said in an e-mail that she is “at an important juncture in fulfilling her responsibilities as attorney general and cannot at this time divert her focus to commenting on the governor’s race.”
Pawlenty, who announced this week that he would not run for the U.S. Senate against the newly appointed Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, could use his name recognition and fundraising skills to skip the GOP convention and go straight to a Republican primary in the governor’s race.
For candidates now in the race, however, the march is on to the party conventions, with campaigns focused on picking up one delegate at a time, at bean feeds and kaffeeklatsches.
“We’re very proud of our grass roots campaign, and our work with delegates is gaining momentum,” said state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who scored just 2 percent in the Star Tribune poll but is widely believed to have a solid delegate operation. “Our plan for 2018 is to take the momentum to the broader Minnesota electorate,” he said.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who won support of 9 percent of DFLers in the poll, is appealing to the party’s most progressive activists, hoping they will be a force at the party convention. She recently won the endorsement of Our Revolution, the grass roots group that grew out of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Johnson, who finished a distant third at the caucus straw poll in 2014 before becoming the eventual GOP nominee for governor, said the real work is just beginning.
“You can’t let straw ballots and polls mean too much to you,” he said. “It’s always great to win, but they’re a little snapshot in time. The real campaign in the endorsement process starts the morning after the caucus.”