Election season unofficially kicked off at precinct caucuses in community gathering spots and individual homes across Minnesota on Tuesday, nine months before the midterms that will decide control of the State Capitol and the makeup of its congressional delegation.

It was a more eventful night for Republicans, who held in-person caucuses where activists got to cast a preference ballot in the race for governor. Former state Sen. Scott Jensen had a definitive lead in the GOP straw poll at 10:30 p.m. with more than 90% of precincts reporting, followed by state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, Neil Shah, Kendall Qualls, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy and state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.

All the top Republican candidates for governor have verbally pledged to abide by the party's endorsement, meaning they won't run in the August primary if they don't get activists' backing. A definitive win for a candidate in precinct caucuses could provide momentum heading into the convention in Rochester.

The two parties took divergent approaches to caucus night, a biennial tradition in which neighbors gather to debate candidates and the issues they think their party should include in its platform. With the omicron variant still surging in Minnesota, Democrats largely caucused remotely for the first time. Republicans aimed for a big in-person turnout, with activists energized by a belief in a favorable political climate for the party and a wide-open race to become the GOP nominee for governor.

In St. Cloud, about 100 people gathered at Apollo High School to caucus Tuesday evening. Buttons with messages including "Parents against woke" were for sale outside the auditorium where residents gathered before splitting off by precinct. Only a handful of attendees wore masks.

Waite Park resident Sharon Greenside, 75, said her biggest concern this year is getting a new governor to replace first-term DFL Gov. Tim Walz — though she hadn't decided which candidate to back.

"We definitely need a Republican governor. That would do wonders for the state," she said. "There are just so many problems."

Greenside said she thinks mask mandates and vaccination requirements are hurting businesses, especially in the Twin Cities where government mandates are stricter than in central Minnesota.

"That's just a travesty what's going on there," she said. "This is supposed to be a free country and [they're] forcing people to do things they don't want to do."

In Duluth, about 50 people gathered to caucus at Ordean East Middle School, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before breaking off into classrooms. Therese Vaughn, 92, said she backed Gazelka for governor.

"He has been in the trenches," she said. "He knows what's going on, he knows how to deal with it, and we need leadership like that."

Vaughn said she opposes masks and vaccinations, and those views are driving her: "I do not feel government should be telling us we have to put foreign things in our bodies."

Jacob Ringstad, a University of Minnesota Duluth student involved in College Republicans, said he supported Jensen for governor.

"He's not part of the Republican establishment, which I think is an asset," Ringstad said. "He's proving that being a Republican conservative isn't about having these sets of issues — it's about having less government. About having control over your own life and living your own life."

Minnesota switched to a presidential primary system in 2020, but it's still one of a handful of states that hold precinct caucuses for statewide races.

"It is a time-honored tradition here in Minnesota to have neighbors and political folks from around the state, activists and candidates, engaged in this process," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said at a Monday news conference.

The DFL opened its caucuses to ineligible voters after claiming in a lawsuit that limiting participation violated First Amendment rights. The Minnesota Court of Appeals in January affirmed a District Court's dismissal of the case. Republicans contend that allowing people such as those convicted of a felony and on probation and immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to caucus violates state law.

For DFLers who participated remotely, the experience was underwhelming. Sami Banat, 19, said he filled out the online form to caucus remotely on Monday and encouraged friends to do the same.

Banat, a Macalester College student running Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's re-election campaign, said the option to participate remotely makes caucuses more accessible. But there's also the challenge of maintaining enthusiasm among party activists.

"It's harder for people to feel represented in the party in the way caucuses are supposed to when you're just filling out an online form," he said.

At North St. Paul High School, one of a handful of in-person DFL caucuses, attendance was sparse. Donita Haack said she has caucused since before she moved to North St. Paul 30 years ago, and enjoys the opportunity to catch up with neighbors and meet new ones.

It was a quiet, quick caucus for Democrats who are passionate about issues including the ongoing redistricting process but happy with Walz's leadership.

"That's one good thing — we know the governor and we know how he's reacting to things. It's positive reactions and not trying to be mean to somebody," Haack said. "We need to be kind."

Staff writers Briana Bierschbach, Jenny Berg, Jana Hollingsworth and Zoë Jackson contributed to this report.