The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 29, 2010

Caucus time is Tuesday

MANKATO — To say the level of interest in Minnesota’s precinct caucuses has changed in recent years is something of an understatement — sort of like saying Democrats weren’t fond of George W. Bush or Republicans aren’t keen on the health care reform proposal generated by Congress.

“Since 2001, there’s a realization that politics matters and that politics is important,” said Joe Kunkel, a professor of political science at Minnesota State University. “We don’t hear so much about apathy now. We hear about hyper-partisanship.”

Apathy reigned through most of the 1980s and 1990s when it came to Minnesota’s precinct caucuses. They were sleepy affairs where attendance was notoriously low, the energy level was even lower, and a growing number of commentators were wondering if they should be eliminated.

That started to change for Democrats with Bush’s election and his performance in office. By 2004, DFL officials were saying attendance at their caucuses had jumped to the highest level since the Vietnam era and a Mankato caucus-goer, scanning the large crowd, proclaimed “Thank you, President Bush.”

By 2008, with presidential candidate Barack Obama drawing massive numbers of young  first-timers, precinct caucuses generated traffic jams, chaos and shocked delight in overwhelmed party officials.

For Republicans, as recently as four years ago the caucuses managed to draw just 35 people in all of North Mankato, a city of about 12,000. One attendee was asked for an explanation.

“Because they’re boring,” he said. “And nothing seems to take place.”

On Tuesday, Republicans are expecting to get a taste of what Democrats had in 2008.

“I think we should have a fairly good turnout this year, more so than a typical off-year or non-presidential year,” said Jon Kovaciny, deputy chairman of the Blue Earth County Republican Party.

People who were not politically active previously are going to show up, motivated by a growing concern about the actions of Obama and the Democratic Congress, he predicted.

“The threat of nationalized health care is a big one for a lot of people,” Kovaciny said, adding that many are worried about the cost and reach of government at both the state and federal level.

“People are starting to see that this can’t go on forever with the government growing faster than the private sector,” he said. “And people are starting to get involved to change that.”

That’s part of what spurred the Tea Party movement, which generated anti-big-government rallies and opposition to the Democratic health care reform effort.

Kunkel is curious to see if Tea Party activists are willing to do precinct caucuses, a sometimes monotonous organizational process. If so, will they go almost exclusively to  the Republican caucuses, or will they show up at other party caucuses, too?

He also wonders if the shouters from the town hall meetings of last summer will show up and do some shouting Tuesday.

“It’s one thing to turn out at town hall meeting and shout, and it’s another to turn out at caucuses, which are kind of a plodding process,” Kunkel said.

The Democrats promise that caucus-goers can avoid the plodding part — when party policy positions are proposed and debated or when would-be delegates make their speeches — if they want. A straw ballot will be held where attendees can vote their preference among the Democratic candidates for governor and then bolt.

Republicans also are holding a straw ballot in the gubernatorial race.

In both cases, it’s nonbinding. But it could be important for those who win and for those who finish near the bottom of the long list of candidates.

“The ones that are first or second get some sort of bragging rights,” Kunkel said. “The ones at the bottom are probably hurt by it. I don’t think it’s decisive.”

That was proven eight years ago when a retired Orono businessman won the Republican straw ballot for governor over a state representative from Eagan.

“I think it gives us tremendous momentum going into the convention,” said Brian Sullivan on a tour of the state fresh off of his 51 percent to 37 percent victory over Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty, of course, won the party endorsement that spring and went on to win two terms as governor.

So the real battle Tuesday will be in the election of delegates, who will meet at county conventions (or state senate district conventions) later in February or early March to elect the delegates to the state convention who do the actual endorsements. So the various candidates have been lining up supporters to attend the caucuses, hoping to get as many of their people elected as delegates as possible.

For area Republicans, there are also competitive races for the 1st District seat in Congress and for Mankato’s state House seat. Those seats are now held by Mankato Democrats Tim Walz and Kathy Brynaert, respectively, so DFL caucus-goers aren’t facing a choice in those races.

Democrats also go into the caucuses knowing that whoever their delegates endorse for governor at a state convention in April won’t necessarily be their candidate Nov. 2. That’s because at least two and possibly more Democrats are planning to challenge the endorsed candidate in the primary election in this summer.

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