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Despite weighty agenda, GOP turnout is light

February 8, 2018 GMT

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson on Tuesday won a non-binding straw poll during lightly attended GOP precinct caucuses in Olmsted County, officially kicking off the start of a weighty political season.

Johnson, who lost the 2014 governor’s race, garnered 138 votes, more than twice the vote total of any other candidate. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was not in the poll, although he is said to be considering a campaign to reclaim the governor’s seat.

Phillip Parish was next with 56 votes, followed by Keith Downey with 49, Mary Giuliani Stephens with 35 and Lance Johnson with 2.

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It isn’t clear how Pawlenty will be received by GOP faithful should he run for governor again. Jeremy Griffith, one of Tuesday’s caucus-goers, said he was a fan of Pawlenty when he ran the state, but “I’m not a fan of him becoming a governor again. I think it’s somebody else’s turn.”

This year is shaping up to a big one politically. Voters will pick a new governor, a new congressional representative for the 1st district, and two U.S. senators. Precinct caucuses are the beginning of a grassroots process in which local party members discuss the issues and elect local delegates to represent them at conventions.

Yet, there were fewer people at Tuesday’s GOP event than in previous years, several people noted. An estimated 324 people showed up at Mayo High School and other sites across the county to talk politics with their neighbors. Two years ago, caucus-goers swelled to 3,500 as people crammed classrooms and cafeterias to caucus. But that was a presidential election year that featured an open battle for the GOP nomination, a fight that Donald Trump won on his way to winning the presidency.

Tuesday’s GOP turnout appeared to be smaller than previous non-presidential precinct caucuses, where attendance typically hovers around 500 to 700 people, one area politico said.

Aaron Miller, chairman of the Olmsted County Republican Party, said that frigid temps might have played a role in depressing turnout.

“It’s zero degrees on a Tuesday night,” Miller said. “Again, it’s not a presidential election, so I don’t gauge this as anything.”

But Miller also noted that there is no shortage of critical races to engage voters this political season. Not only seats at the state and federal level, but races at the local level, including those for Rochester mayor and a couple of city council seats, will be in play.

Precinct caucuses gave GOP congressional candidates Jim Hagedorn and Carla Nelson a chance to pitch their candidacies for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who is running for governor this year.

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Nelson, a Minnesota senator, roiled the political waters before Tuesday’s caucuses by declaring she was bypassing the endorsement process and would run in the primary. That gave rise to questions about whether Nelson would lose her right to have her candidate’s letter included in a packet of materials made available to caucus-goers.

But Miller described all such talk as “hogwash,” adding, “all candidates have access equally. We don’t have an endorsed candidate right now, so until we have that endorsement, Carla has just as much access as anyone.”

Hagedorn said Nelson’s decision to go to the primary didn’t surprise him, but that he remained focused on the campaign.

“We believe that if we keep working to win the endorsement, win the primary and win the general election to take back the seat, that’s our deal,” Hagedorn said. “I’m focused on that.”

Nelson said she was being “up front” with voters by declaring her intention to run in the primary before the precinct caucuses. She contrasted her approach to how Hagedorn handled the situation when he was running for the GOP endorsement for Congress in 2014. She said he pledged to abide by the endorsement process but then changed his mind after losing the endorsement.

“I respect the caucus process. I’ve been involved in setting these up for years,” Nelson said. “I thought it was the straight-forward, honest, transparent thing to do.”

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