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Hot Minnesota races may drive up voter turnout

The media watches Former Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley fill out paperwork on June 5, 2018, to run for Minnesota attorney general. He is one of five Democrats in the race. Don Davis / Forum News Srevice1 / 2
Political activists, such as these at the 2018 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party state convention, will watch the Aug. 14 primary election to see if candidates they endorsed prevail and move on to the Nov. 6 general election. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Political observers have a saying they like to resurrect at every election: It's all about turnout.

Well, of course it is. Whichever candidates get more of their supporters to the polls will win.

But figuring out who will show up for the Aug. 14 primary election is an impossible task, in a large part because President Donald Trump could drive up turnout from both major political parties.

"I think even though President Trump is not on the ballot, in a way he is on the ballot, in some races, on both sides," Secretary of State Steve Simon said. "His presence will be felt."

Two years ago, Trump did well in greater Minnesota, where Republicans dominate many areas.

In four of the past five statewide primaries, greater Minnesota voters were more likely to participate than residents of the seven-county Twin Cities area. In three of those contests, the sheer number of greater Minnesota voters was greater than in the Twin Cities.

That dominance comes even as greater Minnesota has fewer registered voters (1.4 million) than the Twin Cities (1.7 million). Twin Cities voters typically cast more ballots in November elections, but greater Minnesota residents continue to turn out in strong numbers. "Folks in rural Minnesota are very engaged with what is going on in their communities," said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "They need to be listened to. Any candidate that doesn't—does so at their own peril."

Simon, the state's top election official, would not predict how many voters will turn out later this month, but said based on early voting more people may cast ballots than they have for most other primary elections.

Democratic and Republican voters have more races than usual for a primary.

Each of the three Democratic governor candidates hopes turnout goes their way: Tim Walz is a congressman from southern Minnesota, state Rep. Erin Murphy received the party's endorsement at the state convention and Lori Swanson has won three statewide races for attorney general and received a record number of votes.

Over in the GOP, Hennepin County Attorney Jeff Johnson received his party's nod, but former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is very well known and funded. There are two U.S. Senate races this year. In the primary, Democrats have a contest for the final two years of Al Franken's job that is gaining the most interest. The major candidates are appointed U.S Sen. Tina Smith and Richard Painter, who has made a name for himself by being a Republican (before becoming a Democrat earlier this year) who attacks President Donald Trump on cable television news channels.

The attorney general race features five Democrats. Also, Democrats in the northeast-east central Minnesota U.S. House district and another district centered on Minneapolis face five candidates in each race, with smaller races in several other congressional districts. Hamline University professor David Schultz writes in his blog that "there are indications that the drivers of turnout in gubernatorial primaries have little to do with state politics or races and instead reflect national trends and moods in politics."

Minnesotans do an excellent job of turning out at general elections, those held in November.

Since 1950, the November turnout has been below 60 percent of eligible voters just eight times. Generally, turnout is the country's best at more than 70 percent. But primary election turnout is rotten. From 1950 to 1970, a common turnout figure was about 30 percent. Since then, however, a common number has been in the teens. And in 2016, just 7 percent of voters turned out. Even in 2010, when Democrats had a competitive governor's contest like this year, turnout was only 16 percent. But Schultz said: "Past performance does not guarantee future results."

A Thursday, Aug. 2, report from Simon's office indicates that nearly 49,000 votes already have been cast by Minnesotans. That compares with 19,000 two years ago during a presidential election that attracted a lot of voters in the November election. Early voting also is up over four years ago, Simon said.

"Minnesotans seem to be warming to this," the secretary said about early voting.

"There are spirited contests on both sides of the aisle," Simon said, and they likely will influence more voters to cast ballots. either early or at the polls on Aug. 14.

County auditors have ordered more ballots in anticipation of a lots of voters on Aug. 14, Simon said.

Early voters may go to their local county auditor's office and cast a new ballot if they change their minds. However, that opportunity ends a week before the election.

Simon said that few voters do that.

Minnesota candidates

(Primaries needed only when there is more than one candidate in a party)

U.S. Senate (full six-year term)

  • Republican: Jim Newberger, Rocky De La Fuente, Rae Hart Anderson, Merrill Anderson
  • Democrat: Amy Klobuchar(i), Leonard Richards, David Robert Groves, Stephen Emery, Steve Carlson.
  • Green: Paula Overby
  • Legal Marijuana Now: Dennis Schuller

U.S. Senate (to fill two years of Franken term)

  • Republican: Karin Housley, Nikolay Nikolayevich Bey, Bob Anderson
  • Democrat: Tina Smith, Richard Painter, Christopher Lovell Seymore Sr., Nick Leonard, Gregg Iverson, Ali Chehem Ali
  • Unaffiliated: Jerry Trooien
  • Legal Marijuana Now: Sarah Wellington

U.S. House District 1

  • Republican: Andrew Candler, Jim Hagedorn, Carla Nelson, Steve Williams
  • Democrat: Dan Feehan, Coke Minehart

U.S. House District 2

  • Republican: Jason Lewis(i)
  • Democrat: Angie Craig

U.S. House District 3

  • Republican: Erik Paulsen(i)
  • Democrat: Dean Phillips, Cole Young

U.S. House District 4

  • Republican: Greg Ryan
  • Democrat: Muad Hassan, Betty McCollum(i), Reid Rossell
  • Legal Marijuana Now: Susan Pendergast Sindt

 U.S. House District 5

  • Republican: Bob Carney Jr., Christopher Chamberlin, Jennifer Zielinski
  • Democrat: Jamal Abdi Abdulahi, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Bobby Joe Champion, Frank Nelson Drake, Ilhan Omar, Patricia Torres Ray

U.S. House District 6

  • Republican: Tom Emmer(i), A.J. Kern, Patrick Munro
  • Democrat: Ian Todd

U.S. House District 7

  • Republican: Dave Hughes, Matt Prosch
  • Democrat: Collin Peterson(i)

U.S. House District 8

  • Republican: Pete Stauber, Harry Robb Welty
  • Democrat: Kirsten Kennedy, Michelle Lee, Jason Metsa, Joe Radinovich, Soren Christian Sorensen
  • Independence: Ray Skip Sandman

Governor-lieutenant governor

  • Republican: Jeff Johnson-Donna Bergstrom, Matt Cruse-Thomas Loeffler, Tim Pawlenty-Michelle Fischbach
  • Democrat: Tim Holden-James Mellin II, Erin Murphy-Erin Maye-Quade, Ole Saavior-Chris Edman, Lori Swanson-Rick Nolan, Tim Walz-Peggy Flanagan
  • Libertarian: Josh Welter-Mary O'Connor
  • Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis: Chris Wright-Judith Schwartzbacker

Secretary of state

  • Republican: John Howe
  • Democrat: Steve Simon(i)
  • Independence: William Denney

State auditor

  • Republican: Pam Myhra
  • Democrat: Julie Blaha
  • Libertarian: Chris Dock
  • Legal Marijuana Now: Michael Ford

Attorney general

  • Republican: Robert Lessard, Sharon Anderson, Doug Wardlow
  • Democrat: Keith Ellison, Tom Foley, Debra Hilstrom, Matt Pelikan, Mike Rothman
  • Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis: Noah Johnson

Minnesota Legislature

All 134 House seats are on the ballot. The only Senate seat in front of voters is the one vacated by Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach

(i) indicates the candidate is an incumbent

Christopher Magan of the St., Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service partner, contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.