Political Test in Minnesota

Tuesday’s Caucus a Trial Run for House, Senate Candidates

Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:33pm

Correction Appended

For Minnesota Congressional campaigns, Super Tuesday is like a dress rehearsal for the big show in November.

For voters across the state, Tuesday night not only marks when they will help pick a presidential nominee, but it also is the beginning of the endorsement process for Congressional campaigns leading up to the state party conventions early this summer. And it’s a way for campaigns to gauge the strength of their ground games.

“You want your supporters [Tuesday] to get elected as delegates to vote for you, or vote for the people that will vote for you” state Democratic Chairman Brian Melendez said. “You do want to

have a very specific strategy to turn your people out and get them to the next level.”

In a state with competitive Democratic primaries in the 3rd and 6th Congressional districts and in the Senate race, Tuesday evening’s caucus is an important first step for candidates on the way to getting the party’s nomination. Republicans, on the other hand, only have one competitive Congressional primary, in the 1st district, and an incumbent Senator to protect.

And unlike other states, obtaining the party’s endorsement is a competitive and complicated process. All of the Democratic Senate candidates have said they will honor the endorsements that party leaders hand out at the state convention in June and won’t force a primary in September. A majority of the state’s Democratic Congressional candidates have promised the same.

Comedian Al Franken, attorney Mike Ciresi, anti-war activist Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and environmental attorney Jim Cohen are all running for the Democratic nod, likely to be determined by endorsement granted this June at the state convention. The nominee will take on Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in November.

“With all of the Senate candidates abiding by the endorsement, this would be the process by which the [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] nominee will be selected,” said Ciresi campaign spokeswoman Leslie Sandberg.

But with a hotly contested Democratic presidential nomination fight likely to bring more voters to the caucuses than usual, the Congressional campaigns are not entirely certain what to expect on Tuesday night.

For Ciresi’s campaign, the strategy was to focus on courting potential delegates in the more rural parts of the state through the summer of 2007, then transitioning to the suburban and metropolitan areas in October.

“The endorsement process forces you to do what you should be doing anyway, which is to build a grass-roots movement,” said Franken’s campaign manager, Andy Barr. “In some parts of the state, you have the same people become the delegates year after year after year, so you can start your delegate persuasion early.”

In other parts of the state though, campaigns expect a larger population of newcomers to attend Tuesday’s caucuses. To prepare, Barr said Franken’s campaign released a video and held caucus training sessions for new attendees.

“I think the big X-factor is how much the presidentials are going to be pushing people to caucus,” Barr said. “There’s really no way to know what they’re doing. But I think if the presidentials join us in pushing people to turn out, we could have some fire marshal situations in some of these caucus rooms.”

Meanwhile, the goal for Coleman’s campaign, according to spokesman Tom Erickson, is to get the grass-roots organizations “ramped up” and ready for this fall.

“We don’t have a primary challenge, but it’s still important to start a grass-roots effort,” he said.

Campaigns for Nelson-Pallmeyer and Cohen did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

What’s more, this year is expected to be a little different because caucus-goers are voting in a binding poll for their presidential preference as well Tuesday. And a yet-to-be-decided contest on both sides of the aisle will likely drive people to their precincts Tuesday at record-breaking levels.

A state Republican Party spokesman said the GOP expects 35,000 caucus-goers Tuesday, up from 25,000 in March 2004. A Democratic spokeswoman projected up to 75,000 party voters could show up Tuesday evening, up from 56,000 in 2004.

“I think we’re probably going to see anywhere close to from a 70 to 100 percent increase from 2004, and those are going to be new people,” said former DFL Chairman Rick Stafford, who has endorsed Ciresi. “It’s kind of a new crap shoot.”

So while a typical caucus usually brings a regular group of party activists to the precincts plus some newcomers, Tuesday’s caucuses are expected to drag in a lot of nontraditional voters who can vote for a presidential candidate and become a delegate for a Congressional nominee as well.

“It’s going to increase the number of variables that [House and Senate campaigns are] going to have to deal with” Melendez said. “They’re going to have to have a much more effective organization even down to the precinct level. … Basically, they’re going to have to work harder.”

And so it’s time to play the turnout game, according to DFL 3rd Congressional district Chairwoman Marge Hoffa.

“They’re going to want to turn out as many people as they can and make sure those people get elected to the Senate district convention,” she said.

And after the results pour in next week, campaigns must identify their supporters and newcomers elected as delegates in order to be prepared for the next convention.

“There may be people who come in for Barack Obama who don’t even known who they’re for in the Congressional race,” Hoffa said.

Moreover, it’s unclear if there will be any discernable results for Congressional candidates on Tuesday evening. Most of all, Tuesday night is an indicator for the campaigns of how their field teams compare to those of their opponents.

“Every campaign, probably us included, will claim victory on caucus night,” Barr said.

And while there may be indicators of success Tuesday evening, the real results will not be visible until the weeks afterwards when campaigns continue to persuade delegates for the follow-up conventions this spring.

“Until we start going to that next level and having these county and Senate conventions, it’s a little bit of a guessing game,” Barr said.

Correction: Jan. 31, 2008

Democratic Senate candidate Mike Ciresi’s name was spelled incorrectly.