Defying predictions of a tight Minneapolis mayoral race, Council Member Betsy Hodges posted a lead so commanding on Tuesday night that her closest opponent, Mark Andrew, informally conceded less than two hours after polls closed.

Hodges won more than 36 percent of first-choice votes in the race, which used ranked-choice voting. That was more than 11 points ahead of Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner who had been among the leading contenders in the 35-candidate field.

Final results won't be known until Wednesday, when second-and third-choice votes are tabulated. Andrew has said he won't formally concede until then. But, he acknowledged, Hodges' lead appeared hard to overcome. "She's going to be an excellent mayor, and I look forward to working with her as the years go by," he said at an election party at the Graves 601 Hotel.

Meanwhile, at El Nuevo Rodeo Restaurant, Hodges took the stage to tell 150 supporters crowded around her, "Here's to today! And I look forward to seeing you tomorrow."

Stepping off the stage, Hodges hugged and high-fived supporters, dancing as her husband and parents joined the celebration.

But, still cautious, Hodges warned the crowd, "We aren't there yet."

Tuesday's results are a blow to the DFL establishment and municipal employee unions, which overwhelmingly supported Andrew's campaign. Andrew and an affiliated group backed by unions far outspent Hodges, flooding homes with direct mail and running ads on cable TV. Hodges sent few mailers and never went on the air, but she worked at building a strong field operation.

Hodges had painted the race as a choice between the politics of the past, when Andrew served in public office, and a continuation of the policies of outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak, with whom she worked closely on the council.

A big spread

Few expected the first round to break so definitively for any one candidate in a field of 35 contenders.

"No one kind of saw this kind of spread happening," said Jeanne Massey, of FairVote Minnesota, who noted that mathematically Andrew still had a chance of winning.

However, Massey said, most supporters of the other top candidates, such as Council Member Don Samuels, former Council President Jackie Cherryhomes and wind energy attorney Cam Winton, would have had to select Andrew as their second choice. A precinct-by-precinct map showed Hodges drawing support from virtually all parts of the city.

Andrew took his apparent loss in stride. "I've been very fortunate for 16 years in public life," he told supporters. "This has been a wonderful and difficult and trying experience, but I'm OK and I want you to be OK."

About 79,100 people voted in the mayoral contest, putting turnout at a little above 30 percent, not counting same-day voter registrations. In 2001, when Rybak bested Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, turnout was 40 percent.

Brian Melendez, a former state and city DFL chair and a Hodges supporter, said Hodges had played the underdog "and done it very well." He said she also effectively painted Andrew as more of a machine politician. "You can argue about whether that's right or not, but I think most people think it's not a great thing," he said.

A muddled field

The fight to lead Minneapolis began in December, when Rybak said he would not seek a fourth term. Because ranked-choice voting has no primary and the entry fee was only $20, candidates poured in by the dozens and few were inclined to leave, no matter how weak their support.

Eight candidates formed more structured campaigns. In addition to Hodges and Andrew, they included Samuels, Cherryhomes, Winton, former council President Dan Cohen, Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine and software executive Stephanie Woodruff.

The first major test of campaign strength came in July, with the DFL convention. Andrew led on every ballot but failed to secure the endorsement after Hodges' supporters exited en masse, leaving the field wide open.

Then came nearly three dozen forums, where candidates sparred politely, mindful that they could be voters' second or third choice. Education became a top issue, despite the mayor's lack of control over the city's independent school board. Other issues that grabbed attention were streetcars, neighborhood crime, residential density, public safety and population growth.

Outside of forums, candidates relied heavily on direct mail, flooding houses around the city. Independent groups were formed to raise and spend unlimited sums on the candidates' behalf. Some campaigns and groups invested in cable television ads, which are cheaper and more targeted than network television.

The sole poll in the race, commissioned in September by the Star Tribune, showed Samuels and Cohen tied for first place at 16 percent apiece. Another 16 percent said they were undecided.

Andrew raised the most money — $420,000 — and collected the most high-profile endorsements. Unions and others gave another $136,000 to an independent group supporting him. Hodges, who raised $285,000 and lent her campaign $21,000, accused Andrew late in the race of trying to "buy his way into the mayor's office." An independent group supporting Hodges raised $38,000.

Candidates were hard-pressed at times to distinguish themselves in a field where agendas were often similar. Hodges, the council's budget chair, highlighted her work on pension reform as a prime example of her fiscal stewardship and often noted her work with Rybak. Andrew frequently cited his efforts developing the Midtown Greenway, a popular bicycle and pedestrian corridor through south Minneapolis, and said he would make Minneapolis the "greenest city" in the country. Known for impassioned speeches and vigils for North Side murder victims, Samuels said he would be the "education mayor."

Some hoped for a Rybak endorsement, but it never came. Instead, Rybak offered some kind words for Hodges and Samuels — a close ally on the council. Three Rybak staffers volunteered for Hodges' campaign. Hodges did, however, get the endorsement of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who, after securing his own win Tuesday night, congratulated Hodges as "the mayor apparent."

Frustration and hope

Throughout the day, confronted with a two-page ballot the size of a legal pad and filled with names, some voters expressed frustration with the sheer number of candidates but seemed largely to understand the ranked-choice process.

"You had to think about it ahead of time," voter David Bach said. "You had to really sit down and say OK, I have more than one choice this time. I can prioritize people."

Naima Richmond made her picks but said she was more concerned with what would happen after Election Day. Richmond said she'd heard a lot of promises during campaign.

"I hope whoever is the winner will not only say it, but do it," she said.

Staff writers Vineeta Sawkar, Abby Simons, Kelly Smith and Steve Brandt contributed to this report.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper