There was a clarifying moment in the governor’s race from last week’s precinct caucus straw poll as U.S. Rep. Tim Walz won a commanding victory on the DFL side with nearly one-third of the vote.
1. He’ll need to nearly double his 31 percent straw poll total at the state convention to win the party endorsement, which requires 60 percent of the 1,200 or so delegates.
2. The straw poll guarantees nothing. Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t even participate in 2010’s straw poll, and today we call him governor. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson finished a distant third in 2014 but still wound up as the GOP nominee.
3. Walz lost the Eighth Congressional District, especially Duluth, badly.
But if you consider a few data points, Walz is on a good run: strong fundraising, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll that had him leading, a straw poll win in most of the state’s congressional districts, and Attorney General Lori Swanson not running.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto finished second in the straw poll, positioning her as the progressive alternative to Walz.
On the GOP side, Johnson had a strong showing with 45 percent while his three closest challengers were all bunched together, leaving no clear alternative. Johnson has also had a good run: the endorsement of former competitor Rep. Matt Dean, his own lead in the Star Tribune poll and now the straw poll, and a sense among politicos that he’s a more comfortable candidate this time.
One Johnson caveat: terrible GOP turnout — less than a third of the DFL total. It’s a signal that Republicans are lackluster about their current field, a danger sign for the party in November.
Enter former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has shown Johnson twice recently what it’s like to play in the big leagues. First, word of his big donor confab leaked out on campaign finance day, the same day Johnson posted relatively weak numbers. Then on caucus day, Pawlenty stepped on Johnson’s victory by announcing his departure from a lobbying job at Financial Services Roundtable — by far his strongest signal so far of an intent to launch a comeback.
Despite the rush of recent developments in the governor’s race, the convention dynamics are just now forming. Campaigns will spend the next few weekends trying to rustle up delegates, and these mini-skirmishes will go a long way to deciding which candidate will earn endorsements.