Minnesota DFL activists meet this Saturday to choose their leader at a crucial time for the party, headed toward a wide-open 2018 election that will give Republicans a clean shot at full control of state government for the first time in nearly half a century.

Current DFL Chairman Ken Martin, a seasoned political operative with close ties to organized labor, party financiers and elected officials like Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is seeking a fourth term. Donna Cassutt, a former associate chair of the party with close ties to progressive activist groups, is mounting a challenge.

More than 500 party activists will gather at Grand Casino Hinckley for the election, which comes as the DFL undergoes a period of soul-searching and finger-pointing following the 2016 election. The party lost its majority in the state Senate, fell even deeper into the minority in the state House, and President Trump came within about 44,000 votes of toppling the 42-year-long winning streak for Democratic presidential candidates in Minnesota.

"The reality is that the last election was a losing election, but thanks to the infrastructure of the DFL, it could have been a lot worse," Martin said, citing three greater Minnesota congressional seats the party held, and Clinton's narrow win here.

Martin has been around politics long enough to know, however, that his "could have been worse" message may not appeal to party activists who are desperately afraid that Minnesota's political future could soon resemble the GOP hegemony of Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker. State senators aren't on the ballot in 2018, so if Republicans hold their House majority and win the race to replace the retiring Dayton, the party would be positioned to remake state government.

"The question we have to ask ourselves Saturday is about the future, and who will best be able to welcome in new people to the party and implement strategies that will reconnect with the voters, so we can be successful in 2018 and 2020," said Cassutt, who until December served as executive director of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a progressive group backed by unions, churches and community groups.

Cassutt said the party lost touch with voters by failing to organize grass roots volunteers around a compelling message of fighting for average Minnesotans. She alleged the party has come to rely too heavily on polls, consultants, direct mail and TV advertising at the expense of grass roots organizing and intelligence collected from good interactions with voters at their front doors.

Her message was undergirded this week by a letter from DFL legislators to the party's state central committee, criticizing the party's field operation as unwelcoming and focused on a voter pool that is too small.

Martin points to problems with Clinton's candidacy as a key explanation for DFL losses. He is responding forcefully to Cassutt's candidacy, criticizing her tenure as associate chair from 2005 to 2011.

"The Party was marginalized, off to the sidelines, constantly facing financial difficulties," he said about those years. "Our partners in labor, our elected officials, the donors, they weren't working with the party," he said.

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Dayton endorsed Martin and said he has "rebuilt our party from its serious organizational and operational weaknesses in 2010, when I ran for governor."

Martin ran the 2010 recount for Dayton, who asked him to become party chair. In 2012, the DFL swept the Legislature and helped defeat two constitutional amendments — a voter ID requirement and a gay marriage ban.

Martin has the support of other elected officials, including Klobuchar and Rep. Keith Ellison, whose commitment to grass roots politics has made him a revered figure in the party. Klobuchar, running for re-election in 2018, said in a statement that "we need leaders like Ken to bring us together and move us forward."

Cassutt has influential supporters, too.

Javier Morillo, executive director of SEIU Local 26 and a well-connected DFLer, said Cassutt was instrumental in defeating the 2012 voter ID amendment even when progressive allies took a pass early on, fearing lopsided polls that made the fight look unwinnable. She used a combination of an aggressive field program and media coverage to drum up opposition even before any ad campaign, Morillo said.

Morillo said his chief concern is a lack of introspection on the part of DFL leadership after the 2016 losses: "I cannot understand the fierceness with which people are refusing to analyze what happened and why," he said.

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042