Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz scored victories Tuesday with party activists who weighed in for the first time in this year’s governor’s race, as Minnesotans by the thousands turned out at precinct caucuses that start the march toward one of the most consequential state elections in years.

Walz, a U.S. congressman from Mankato, was leading Tuesday night by a commanding margin in the nonbinding straw poll of DFL voters. Johnson, the Hennepin County Commission from Plymouth, was winning the GOP straw poll with an even bigger margin, with more than two out of five Republicans favoring him.

“There’s many people who are running to be a politician, and there’s people who are running to help people,” said Ryan Kirkley, a 23-year-old Johnson supporter who caucused for him in St. Paul. “And so I feel that he is the one who is choosing to help people the most.”

Doug Lewer, a 67-year old retired teacher from St. Paul, said he likes that Walz was a teacher before he was elected to Congress in 2006: “I’m a former teacher and I know which ones were in the teaching business, so I’m kind of leaning toward Walz,” he said.

The straw poll is nonbinding, but it can be symbolically important as a measure of who is favored by the party’s most ardent activists.

“We set out to make the case that we could build a broad coalition, not just to win an election but to govern,” Walz said in an appearance late Tuesday at DFL headquarters in St. Paul. He said he was encouraged to see “pretty broad support across the state.”

Johnson said Tuesday’s result, combined with the State Fair poll and recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll indicate that “We’re uniting Republicans right now,” he said.

The caucuses are the first step in winnowing the field of candidates for various statewide offices, debating issues that will make up party platforms and electing delegates to upcoming regional and state conventions.

For Republicans, the night offered a clear warning: Low turnout showed the risk of an enthusiasm gap — a potential complacency born of the party’s control of the White House and Congress. 

With all precincts reporting, almost 11,000 Republicans had participated in the caucus, barely more than half the 20,000 who showed up 2010 and well less than the 14,000 in 2014.

On the DFL side, turnout was on its way to 30,000, more than the 22,500 who turned out in 2010, the last time there was an open governor’s race.

But even as Republicans headed to their caucuses, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was upstaging the event.

The former two-term Republican governor announced he is leaving his job as chairman of a Washington, D.C.-based bank lobbying organization to consider another bid for governor. Pawlenty’s entry into the race would jolt the Republican field, and speculation about his next move hung in the air at many Republican caucuses.

Sam Swanlund, a Republican caucusing in Cottage Grove, backed Johnson. But what if Pawlenty gets in? “I’d have to rethink,” Swanlund said.

Asked about Pawlenty, Johnson said, ‘There’s nothing I can do about that. He has to make his decision,” he said. “I hope he’ll talk to Republicans on the ground and not just big donors and lobbyists. It will give him a different idea of what Republican voters are actually looking for in this race,” he said.

In addition to the open governor’s race, the presence on the ballot of two U.S. Senate races, a number of hotly contested congressional races, other statewide offices including attorney general, and the battle for control of the state House is likely to make Minnesota the scene of intense political competition as the country prepares for the first nationwide elections in the era of President Donald Trump.

But both political parties share a focus on the governor’s race. If the Republicans win, they would likely control both the legislative and executive branches of government for the first time in more than half a century.

The DFL is terrified of that prospect, especially as the 2020 census nears, after which the party in power will be able to redraw congressional and legislative district lines in their favor. If the DFL can keep the seat that retiring Gov. Mark Dayton has held for two terms, the party could continue to position the state in opposition to the Trump agenda.

Jim Hall said the current political climate, which he called “on the brink of authoritarianism and fascism,” drew him to the DFL caucus at Falcon Ridge Middle School in Apple Valley. He and his wife caucused once for Bill Clinton, he said. Both are attorneys who became more politically active last year, including marching in rallies and parades.

Sue Hall said that though she’s left-leaning generally, she’s been open-minded in the past and proudly voted for Arne Carlson for governor. “In the last year, I’ve definitely been pushed [into the DFL],” Sue Hall said. “There’s no way I would ever vote Republican now.”

The campaigns organized for months before caucus night to ensure their supporters were elected Tuesday to go to regional conventions. From there, they’ll hope to be elected to the state conventions, where delegates will officially endorse their favorites.

In the governor’s race, a large and well-funded DFL field includes former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; Reps. Tina Liebling, Erin Murphy and Paul Thissen; State Auditor Rebecca Otto; and Walz.

Otto was on her way to finishing second in the straw poll, with Murphy narrowly ahead of Coleman and “uncommitted,” with Liebling and Thissen bringing up the rear.

Major declared candidates on the Republican side include Johnson, former GOP official Keith Downey, Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens and conservative activist Phillip Parrish.

Undecided voters were the second-largest GOP group of voters behind Johnson. Downey finished ahead of Parrish and Giuliani Stephens.

Tuesday’s winners know the risks of overconfidence: In 2014, Johnson finished a distant third in the straw poll but wound up as the GOP nominee. Dayton did not even compete in the 2010 straw poll, and he became governor.

Swanlund, of Cottage Grove, first participated in the caucus process in 2016, and he noticed a steep drop-off in turnout.

“This room was standing room only,” he said of 2016, looking around the nearly empty classroom at Cottage Grove Middle School.

At Eden Prairie High School on Valley View Road, Madison Dibble, a sociology major at the University of Minnesota and an officer with College Republicans there, signaled some of the ambivalence about the current Republican field. “It doesn’t look like the field is quite settled yet,” she said. For now, she said, “I’m not passionate about one candidate or the other.” Her priorities: Winning, and then, lower taxes.

DFLers at Eden Prairie High had a bevy of volunteers, many of them young voters. John Lindholm, a high school senior at a Catholic school, said this was his first caucus, and he will vote for the first time in November. He’s currently interning for DFL congressional candidate Dean Phillips, who is poised to offer a tough challenge to U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, the Republican congressman from the area.

Lindholm grew up in a Republican family, but he’s going his own way. “I thought maybe I’m not a Republican actually,” he said.

Star Tribune reporters Jessie Van Berkel, Judy Keen, Erin Adler, Miguel Otárola, and University of Minnesota students Trevor Squire, Ryan Faircloth, Emily Allen, Christopher Shea, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina and Kelly Busche contributed to this report.